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CAUT begins censure process against U of T over IHRP hiring controversy

Concerns raised about external reviewer Professor Bonnie Patterson
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U of T has ordered a review of the Faculty of Law hiring controversy. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY
U of T has ordered a review of the Faculty of Law hiring controversy. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY

On October 15, the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) Executive Committee voted in favour of a censure against U of T in response to a hiring controversy at the Faculty of Law. The decision came after U of T announced its widely criticized “impartial review.” 

Concerns have also been raised about the appointed reviewer due to her reported involvement in a different controversy surrounding academic freedom in 2001. 

The controversy surrounds an alleged offer that the Faculty of Law made to scholar Valentina Azarova for the position of director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP). The faculty then allegedly rescinded the offer due to external pressure from a donor, who is believed to be Justice David Spiro, a member of the Tax Court of Canada, a U of T alum, and a donor to the university. 

The Dean of the Faculty of Law Edward Iaccobucci has denied that an offer was made to Azarova or that there was any interference in the hiring process. 

CAUT censure

CAUT, which has begun the censure process against U of T, represents over 70,000 faculty and staff at universities across Canada. 

While the censure has already been voted on by the Executive Committee, it still must be ratified in a council meeting in November. In an email to The Varsity, Lisa Keller, CAUT’s Communications Officer, wrote that “it is extremely unlikely that the Council will not vote to ratify.” If approved, U of T would have six months to enact the CAUT’s demands before the censure would go into effect.

CAUT censures are extremely rare, with the last one having occurred in 2008. This is in part because the consequences are fairly severe. The CAUT will stop spreading job listings from any censured institution, widely publicize any dispute, and encourage other institutions to commit to similar measures.

Moreover, it will ask for its members to take on more general actions. “What it amounts to… is effectively a boycott by all 70,000 plus members to not accept appointments, not accept invitations to speak or participate in conferences, and not to accept any honour from U of T,” Vincent Wong, an IHRP’s research associate who resigned when the scandal broke, wrote in an email to The Varsity. He added that even 50 per cent of members complying “[could cause] massive damage for any educational institution of higher learning.”

A former IHRP director, Samer Muscati, wrote that the censure will make U of T “an academic pariah” and that “its reputation… will suffer irreparably.” He claimed that this is the right action to take on the part of the CAUT, and that it’s encouraging to see an institution standing up for academic freedom. 

“I hope [the censure] will convince the University of Toronto administration to do some soul searching that will lead to transparency and accountability over what happened.”

Both Muscati and Wong agreed that the first steps to rectifying the situation were to create a truly transparent review process and to apologize and reinstate an offer of employment to Azarova. Muscati also wrote that if the university continues to obscure the situation, it will be an “opportunity lost” for a learning experience about the university hiring process. 

Criticism of review process for lack of impartiality, transparency

U of T announced that it would be conducting a review of the controversy, led by former Trent University President and Professor Bonnie Patterson, on October 14. Since then, several people have made allegations against Patterson and questioned the review’s ability to be truly impartial.

In a series of tweets, Louis Century, a U of T alum and associate at Goldblatt Partners, brought attention to Patterson’s reported involvement in a scandal in 2001. According to a CAUT report, during a controversy involving the closure of two historic colleges at Trent University, Patterson reprimanded Professor George Nader for speaking out against the closure of the colleges. 

Afterward, Nader was refused reappointment as principal of Peter Robinson College. Patterson then refused to participate in the CAUT’s review, which concluded that Nader’s academic freedom had been infringed upon.

Wong wrote that, due to Patterson’s involvement in the previous scandal, to say that a review led by her would be impartial is a “true stretch of the imagination.”

A statement written by Kelly Hannah-Moffat, Vice-President of Human Resources and Equity, claimed that Patterson’s “reputation as a wise and impartial academic colleague makes her ideal to conduct this impartial review.”

Muscati also agreed the review is flawed because its director was chosen by Hannah-Moffat, who has already denied that the offer was ever made. Moreover, he noted that the full report will not be released to the public and that, consequently, administration officials will be able to choose what they disclose.

In an email to The Varsity, a U of T spokesperson reasserted the university’s “confidence in the review [it has] launched” and assured that they are “committed to transparency and will release the report’s findings.” They justified not releasing the full report because of the “personal information” it may contain.

Professor Emerita Rebecca Cook, Founder of the IHRP, will serve as interim director of the IHRP until another suitable candidate is found for the role, which has been vacant for over a year. Her role will be to outline future directions for the IHRP and share these possibilities with the next dean.

Editor’s note (October 26): This article has been updated to correct that Wong was one of the research associates in the IHRP program.