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Opinion: Law faculty’s response to hiring scandal allegations must do better by Palestinian cause

Commitment to academic freedom, human rights is questionable
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MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY
MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY

U of T’s Faculty of Law has recently come under fire for allegations that it has rescinded an offer of employment to an international scholar after a sitting judge and major donor to the faculty expressed concerns over her work on Israeli settlement on Palestinian territories.

The Faculty Advisory Committee of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) began the hiring process for the position of IHRP director back in mid-August, a position that has been vacant for a year. The hiring committee unanimously chose Valentina Azarova as the top candidate for the job, leading her to accept the offer later in August.

Allegedly, David E. Spiro is the source of external influence who opposed Azarova’s offer, claiming that her work for human rights activism in Israel was inappropriate. An alum of the Faculty of Law, he is also a former member of the board of directors of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. His extended family has donated tens of millions to the University of Toronto, and he himself advised the law school on its $30-million fundraising campaign.

Now a sitting judge in the Tax Court of Canada, the university names Spiro as a Faculty of Law Building Campaign Donor, and he is on the donor list for the faculty’s Campaign for Excellence without Barriers under the $25,000–99,000 donor category.

Allegedly, two days after a call with Judge Spiro, negotiations with Azarova were terminated.

Azarova is a renowned international scholar whose work focuses closely on human rights abuses in Israel and enforcing human rights on a global scale. Her unquestionable experience and record speak for itself, and as other faculty members have attested, she is the most suitable candidate for the position of IHRP director.

If these allegations are true, the story raises serious questions about the faculty’s commitment to academic freedom and human rights in its research and teaching — and paints a disturbing picture of its submission to the pressures of money and donor influence.

If true, the message that these actions would give is disappointing but clear: where academic freedom is involved, it’s better to stay quiet than to express what one stands for, even in a setting where open-mindedness and freedom of speech is ostensibly valued.

Furthermore, the faculty’s response to the allegations in the face of the anger, concern, and protest that have resulted from the media firestorm is itself concerning. The faculty advisory board of the IHRP has resigned in protest to the alleged rescindment, and the Students’ Law Society has published an open letter to Faculty of Law Dean Edward Iacobucci raising concerns regarding “procedural fairness, confidentiality, and deference to appointed and entrusted Committees.” Yet Iacobucci’s response amounts to a dismissal of the allegations of external influence in its hiring process —and a confounding denial of ever offering Azarova the position in the first place, That is as far the faculty goes.

The faculty fails to sensitively consider and respond to the broader academic context in which Palestinian voices and scholars’ rights to advocacy are undermined and delegitimized. Having to pay a penalty for uncovering human rights violations in any country is unacceptable. Israel is no exception.

For current and prospective Palestinian students, the allegations against the faculty — and its defensive and lacklustre response to the allegations — signify that when it comes to defending the right to express their opinions and advocate for their people, the faculty will be nowhere in sight.

If these allegations are true, the faculty’s actions and lack of accountability thereafter can only be seen as problematic, harmful, and representative of anti-Palestinian racism and discrimination at the faculty.

These allegations go far beyond tarnishing the reputation of the university’s human rights program — they also inherently threaten the power of practicing advocacy in an academic institution. While an investigation may be underway, there is strong potential for these actions to impact the image of both current and future students who choose to pursue legal education at U of T.

Until Iacobucci and the faculty extend a response to these serious accusations beyond denying that there was ever an offer, it’s safe to say that the faculty’s commitment to equal treatment — something the law, the very thing it teaches, is meant to uphold — will remain in question.

Mélina Lévesque is a fifth-year political science and sociocultural anthropology student at Victoria College.

Editor’s Note (October 5, 2020): This article has been updated to include Iacobucci’s denial of external influence in the law faculty’s hiring process.