Following controversy, U of T resumes search for International Human Rights Program director

·7 min read
The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law is resuming its search to find a new director for its International Human Rights Program. (David Donnelly/CBC - image credit)
The University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law is resuming its search to find a new director for its International Human Rights Program. (David Donnelly/CBC - image credit)

Nine months after the University of Toronto Faculty of Law came under fire for withdrawing a not-yet-finalized job offer from a highly-regarded scholar, the university says it's beginning its search again.

Last July, Valentina Azarova emerged from 140 applicants as the three-person hiring team's unanimous choice to be the new director for the university's International Human Rights Program.

But in early September, the university halted the hiring process altogether. The university says it was a matter of timing and immigration logistics and not the fact that the confidential hiring process was breached.

The breach became public shortly after a federal court judge, who is a donor to the university, reached out to the Faculty of Law to share concerns from the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs that Azarova's hiring would be met with controversy and could harm the university's reputation.

A judicial review has since cleared Judge David Spiro to keep working but criticized him for "serious mistakes."

At the university's request, former Supreme Court justice Thomas Cromwell also reviewed the hiring situation. He critiqued university staff's handling of Spiro's inappropriate intervention and recommended policy changes, but ultimately said he did not find any evidence that the external pressure led to the Faculty of Law's decision.

Azarova, who did not respond to a request for comment from CBC News, is a scholar based in Germany whose long list of credentials includes work with human rights organizations in the West Bank.

Her research and writing extensively address what the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) summarizes as, "the application of international law and treaty obligations within the context of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territories." Meanwhile, Jewish human rights organization B'nai Brith Canada, characterizes her as "an anti-Israel activist with ties to an organization closely linked to a terrorist group."

In a news release announcing their new search, the Faculty of Law says it has a "preferred candidate" in mind for the job based on last year's search — from which Azarova emerged as the preferred candidate — but that legally it must open the job up to other applicants.

Some faculty members are skeptical of the university's motives, characterizing the new search as damage control by an academic institution beleaguered by the ongoing fallout of the first search, which has earned the university condemnation from CAUT and Amnesty International, among others.

To other faculty, the wording is a clear indication that the job is Azarova's if she still wants it. What is clear to both sides is that the Faculty of Law is still struggling to find a way to move forward.

Unless we find a way to move forward, the faculty will cease to exist. - David Dyzenhaus, professor of law and philosophy

"It's important that it does," said David Dyzenhaus, a professor of law and philosophy. "Unless we find a way to move forward, the faculty will cease to exist."

Dyzenhaus said both sides need to recognize that there are two possible interpretations of events. Both sides agree Spiro improperly interfered. However, they disagree on whether his interference led to Azarova's hiring being abruptly halted and whether the university's response has been adequate.

Now that the hiring process has resumed, Dyzenhaus said, "I think the message is pretty clear that Dr. Azarova, should she apply, will be hired."

Given that's what many people have been calling for, Dyzenhaus said he's hoping that will open the door for the faculty "to move forward in a highly productive way … as long as people are prepared to stop fighting with each other."

Jutta Brunnée, who took over as dean of the Faculty of Law in January for a five-year term, said the university is "in a different place now" and able to properly recruit a foreign candidate.

She said political views "don't have a place in hiring considerations" and that the university will remain "an institution where rigorous political academic debate can take place."

Brunnée would not comment on the "preferred candidate" beyond reiterating it's the same preferred candidate from last year. She confirmed she has reached out to Azarova to let her know the application is open.

If the intent is for Azarova to emerge as the top candidate a second time, "I would be cautiously optimistic, but want to see it to believe it," said Vincent Wong, a member of the hiring team that recommended Azarova.

Wong resigned from his job with the IHRP over the university's handling of Azarova's application. He's long maintained the university's version of events "doesn't pass the smell test."

While Cromwell's report cleared the university of allegations of outside interference, Wong is among those who don't support his analysis of the events. In April, CAUT took a rare step and censured the University of Toronto — the first censure it imposed in more than a decade.

"CAUT Council found it implausible to conclude that the donor's call did not trigger the subsequent actions resulting in the sudden termination of the hiring process," noted CAUT's executive director David Robinson in a release announcing the censure.

The university called the censure "unwarranted."

Still, it has apologized to Azarova and reaffirmed it "is fully committed to academic freedom, to a collegial process to bring about reconciliation at the Faculty of Law, and to ensuring that its merit-based hiring processes are and remain completely insulated from outside pressures."

In a statement, the university reiterated it is working to make sure staff "are trained and equipped to withstand any external inquiries or actions."

But Mohammed Fadel, another law professor, said the university's lack of responsibility is "highly distressing."

He said the dean at the time should have recused himself from making a final decision on Azarova's offer the moment he became aware of the confidentiality breach. He finds Cromwell's emphasis on the lack of explicit policies around donor intervention concerning.

"That's just not credible," Fadel said. "You don't need to be a highly paid professional in an academic setting to understand that the request from this judge was wrong."

He said he's glad to see the process restarted, but he's harbouring doubts.

"I'm still worried that it's much more motivated by public relations than a genuine desire to make a good-faith attempt to correct the mistakes that happened," Fadel said.

Fellow law professor Trudo Lemmens echoed Fadel, telling CBC News, "I still have my reservations until I see what is happening."

The university is taking the right steps to address donor intervention, said Dyzenhaus.

"As far as I can tell it happens all the time and generally it is resisted. In this case, it wasn't resisted by at least one person," he said. "That's very bad, but the university has not tried to cover this up … Steps are being taken to make sure something like this never happens again."

But fellow law professor Denise Réaume doesn't see the university in the same light. She characterizes its responses over the last nine months as a series of attempts to downplay the severity of the intervention, responding only in manners of its own choosing when public pressure compels it to.

"Fortunately for academic freedom, the CAUT saw through that," Réaume said.

The issue of academic freedom, particularly when it concerns Palestinian human rights issues, is incredibly important still, she said.

She pointed to another University of Toronto professor, Dr. Rikita Goel, who became the target of an anonymous open letter last month.

Dr. Ritika Goel was named faculty lead of social accountability by the University of Toronto's Department of Family and Community Medicine in 2020. She is the first person to hold the position.
Dr. Ritika Goel was named faculty lead of social accountability by the University of Toronto's Department of Family and Community Medicine in 2020. She is the first person to hold the position.(University of Toronto)

It called for Goel's dismissal from the university's Department of Family and Community Medicine after she joined nearly 3,000 people in signing a letter calling on Canadian health workers to express solidarity with Palestinians.

"If it were just that easy to speak out about Palestinian affairs then we would not see these things blowing up," Réaume said.

"We are not just being troublemakers for the sake of being troublemakers."

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