An academic boycott of the University of Toronto has been temporarily lifted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
The university was censured by Canadian academics earlier this year over its decision to abort a hiring at its law school after a prominent donor and sitting judge intervened by raising concerns about the candidate’s views on the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
The censure was placed on pause by the CAUT Friday after the university made a good faith job offer to Valentina Azarova, the academic whose hiring was abruptly terminated last September. Dr. Azarova, however, declined the latest offer – even though it was the same job for which she had originally applied: director of the law school’s international human-rights program (IHRP).
Still, the CAUT called it a victory for academic freedom. It said Dr. Azarova’s decision, “while unfortunate, is understandable given the university’s initial reaction to the unfounded and scurrilous attacks on her reputation and her research.”
Dr. Azarova said in a statement that she had reluctantly decided not to take the position.
“In light of events over the past year, I realized that my leadership of the program would remain subject to attack by those who habitually conflate legal analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian context with hostile partisanship,” she said.
The CAUT said it was calling on its allies to suspend actions related to the censure, but it would not completely end the measure until a November vote of its council. It also said the university needs to address a number of related issues, including explicit academic freedom protection for employees in administrative jobs and taking steps to prohibit donor interference.
David Estok, a spokesman for the University of Toronto, said the university welcomes the CAUT decision. The university recently updated its guidelines on donations, and staff in the fundraising office have attended mandatory sessions on appropriate boundaries with donors. An advisory group is also examining academic freedom issues as they relate to managerial staff.
The censure campaign urged academics around the world to decline job offers and invitations to speak at the university. It was cast as a struggle to defend academic freedom from the corrupting influence of big-money donors.
The university commissioned a report by a retired Supreme Court justice that concluded the donor’s actions did not influence the hiring decision. That finding was rejected by the CAUT, however, which voted 79-0 in favour of censure last April. The donor, Tax Court Justice David Spiro, had his conduct reviewed by the Canadian Judicial Council (CJC), and the court attempted to direct cases involving Muslim litigants and counsel to other judges while the CJC review was under way. A panel of judges ruled that he had made serious mistakes but allowed him to stay on the bench.
The controversy began in the fall of 2020. Dr. Azarova, who was living in Germany at the time, was the unanimous choice of a hiring committee. She believed she had accepted their job offer.
But in early September, Justice Spiro mentioned concerns about Dr. Azarova’s hiring to an administrator in the fundraising office. Justice Spiro’s extended family have donated millions of dollars to the university and its affiliated hospitals. He recommended the university do its “due diligence” and said her writing on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories could be seen as controversial by the Jewish community.
Almost immediately, the dean of law at the time, Edward Iacobucci, was briefed about the call.
Although he said the fundraising office should “back off,” Prof. Iacobucci spoke with other top administrators about the situation over the Labour Day weekend and concluded that Dr. Azarova could not be hired. He cited immigration hurdles that would have taken months to resolve.
The CAUT told the university that a renewed job offer to Dr. Azarova was its principal condition for lifting the censure.
Jutta Brunnée, the new dean of the law school, said it’s disappointing that the hiring process failed. The search for a new director of the IHRP program will now begin again.
“The IHRP program is a key program for us and for our students. And I’m keen to strengthen it. That means putting it under long term leadership as soon as possible,” Prof. Brunnée said.
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