A report into allegations of improper interference in a hiring decision at the University of Toronto law school has found that a sitting judge expressed concerns about a candidate to the administration, but his actions had no influence.
The university asked former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell to establish the facts involved in the decision not to hire the candidate a committee had selected for the post of director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP).
A controversy over the issue led to a motion of censure by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which accused the university of violating academic freedom, and an investigation by the Canadian Judicial Council into the actions of Tax Court Justice David Spiro.
Justice Spiro, an alumnus whose extended family has donated tens of millions to the university and affiliated hospitals, was alleged to have called the university administration in an attempt to intervene in the hiring decision.
Valentina Azarova, the candidate chosen by the hiring committee, is an international human rights scholar who has written about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. She has said she was offered and accepted the job in August, 2020, and the offer was rescinded in early September.
Mr. Cromwell concluded no offer “in the strictly legal sense” was extended. He described the negotiations as advanced, but obstacles remained. It was not clear how Dr. Azarova, who is not Canadian, could obtain immigration and legal clearances to work in Canada, or from Germany while the arrangements were in progress.
Mr. Cromwell confirmed that Justice Spiro, whom he refers to only as “the Alumnus,” commented to a U of T official on the potential hiring of Dr. Azarova. But he said the comments were misunderstood in the public discussion as interference or “political pressure.”
“My conclusion is that the Alumnus simply shared the view that the appointment would be controversial with the Jewish community and cause reputational harm to the university,” Mr. Cromwell wrote.
Justice Spiro provided a written account of his actions to Mr. Cromwell.
Mr. Cromwell also interviewed an assistant vice-president, who is unnamed in the report, about a phone call to Justice Spiro that she described as normal outreach to a donor.
The call was scheduled for Sept. 4. On Sept. 3, Justice Spiro received an e-mail from a staff member at an organization of which he had been a director, Mr. Cromwell says. (Justice Spiro was a director of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, an advocacy group.)
The e-mail said: “The hope is that through quiet discussions, top university officials will realize that this appointment is academically unworthy, and that a public protest campaign will do major damage to the university, including in fundraising.”
The staff member asked him to contact the dean of law, Edward Iacobucci, about the appointment. Justice Spiro declined to do so, Mr. Cromwell said. But he raised the issue at the end of his call with the assistant vice-president.
The assistant vice-president, in a phone call with another administrator, then flagged “the importance of due diligence on the IHRP file,” and that administrator later briefed Prof. Iacobucci. The dean said he had not heard the candidate’s name before nor did he know why her appointment might be controversial.
During Labour Day weekend, there were a number of calls among senior U of T administrators. Mr. Cromwell concludes that Prof. Iacobucci was concerned about the legality of hiring Dr. Azarova as a contractor and not, primarily, the issue raised by Justice Spiro.
Mr. Cromwell said public discussion has focused on the notion that the dean’s reasons for ending the hiring process were a pretext. Mr. Cromwell said the concerns about immigration issues existed before the judge’s intervention.
“I would not draw the inference that the dean’s decision was influenced by improper considerations resulting from the Alumnus’ inquiry,” Mr. Cromwell wrote.
University of Toronto president Meric Gertler said on Monday he was pleased to have this detailed account on the record. He said he wrote to Dr. Azarova to apologize for the way confidentiality was breached in the search process, but has not heard back from her. He added that the university would embrace Mr. Cromwell’s recommendation to ensure external attempts to influence hiring on the basis of a candidate’s research or views are rejected.
Samer Muscati, a former director of the IHRP, called the report disappointing.
“Based on the devastating facts outlined in the report, it is surprising that the review did not conclude there was outside interference in the hiring process,” Mr. Muscati said.
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