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U of T’s “impartial review” of IHRP hiring controversy draws concerns about transparency, independence, effectiveness

Review follows global backlash against allegations of judicial interference at law faculty
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U of T has ordered a review of the IHRP hiring process. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY
U of T has ordered a review of the IHRP hiring process. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY

Following demands that the university investigate allegations of judicial interference in the hiring process of Valentina Azarova as the director for the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at U of T’s Faculty of Law, the university has ordered an “impartial review” of the situation.

The review will be conducted by Professor Bonnie Patterson, former President of the Council of Ontario Universities and former President and Vice-Chancellor of Trent University. On October 14, Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Vice-President Human Resources and Equity at U of T, announced in a statement that she has asked Patterson “to review all relevant documents and conduct interviews” to come to a conclusion about the situation.

Patterson has been asked to submit a report to Hannah-Moffat, Vice-President and Provost Cheryl Regehr, and Faculty of Law Dean Edward Iacobucci by mid-January. However, some have criticized the review process, claiming that it lacks transparency, independence, and effectiveness.

Criticisms, calls for an investigation

Iacobucci has denied in an email that an employment offer was ever made to Azarova and also denied allegations of external influence in the IHRP hiring process.

However, Vincent Wong, a former research associate who resigned from his position as a member of the hiring committee for the position of IHRP director, has written a series of tweets publicizing emails exchanged during the hiring process. He shared emails that showed that the committee agreed to reach out to Azarova to discuss an offer for the position after unanimously agreeing to hire her.

Later on, according to the emails, Azarova’s candidacy was dropped, with hiring committee member and assistant dean Alexis Archbold citing immigration issues as the reason, although Wong tweeted that the committee previously had reason to believe that Azarova’s foreign residency would not be a major hurdle in hiring her.

Multiple criticisms and open letters have been published calling for more transparency and demanding an investigation into the issue. A group of international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff addressed a letter, which has close to 200 signatures, to U of T President Meric Gertler calling for an independent investigation.

Human Rights Watch has published an article about the matter, saying that it “raises serious concerns on threats to academic freedom.”

Most recently, on October 7, nine members of the Faculty of Law at U of T wrote a letter to Regehr in which they argue that the fact that “the Dean of Law could act in such a high-handed manner in the IHRP appointment process, without fear of being called to account for his decision, is a sign of a decayed collegial environment.”

Concerns about the review process

Following the backlash, the university announced that it would review the IHRP hiring process. However, this has drawn further criticism. David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), has claimed that the review is not independent since it will be presented to administrators such as Hannah-Moffat, who has already publicly denied allegations of interference.

CAUT has also begun a censure process against the U of T administration. If the censure is approved at the meeting in November, U of T would have six months to address CAUT’s concerns before it would take effect, meaning CAUT members would be asked not to accept appointments or speaking engagements at U of T.

Samer Muscati, an associate director at Human Rights Watch and former director of the IHRP, also questioned the investigation’s transparency, asking why the report by Patterson will be submitted to administration, rather than published publicly. However, Hannah-Moffat noted that the findings of the report will “eventually” be published.

Furthermore, in her announcement, Hannah-Moffat wrote that no one is obliged to speak to Patterson and that the decision about whether to do so is completely voluntary — raising concerns about the effectiveness of the investigation.

U of T Media Relations did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.