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U of T modifies review of IHRP hiring controversy following impartiality, transparency concerns

Review to be presented to President Meric Gertler, criticism of reviewer remains
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U of T has changed its plans for the review of the IHRP hiring controversy. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY
U of T has changed its plans for the review of the IHRP hiring controversy. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY

In response to criticisms regarding the transparency and impartiality of its process, U of T has modified its review of the hiring controversy at the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP), which will now be presented directly to President Meric Gertler and be released in full. 

The purpose of the review is to look into allegations that the faculty hired Dr. Valentina Azarova as the new director for the IHRP and rescinded the offer due to external influence over her criticism of Israel regarding the situation in Palestine. The dean of the Faculty of Law has denied that an offer was ever made and that there was any external influence.

After the decision to change the review’s format was announced, an open letter was published by several professors in the Faculty of Law. The open letter outlined the review’s shortcomings and the implications of the resolution of the issue for the future of academic freedom.

Modifications to the review process

Previously, the review would have been given to administrators including Dean of the Faculty of Law Edward Iaccobucci and Vice-President Human Resources and Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat, prompting concerns, as they had both denied that an offer was ever made. The report itself was originally not going to be made public, leading some to criticize the review’s transparency. The report will now be delivered directly to President Meric Gertler. Moreover, it will be released in full to the public with redactions only made to protect personal information. 

The external review will still be conducted by Professor Bonnie Patterson, who herself was subject to scrutiny in a scandal in 2001, when a report by the Canadian Association of University Teachers found that Patterson violated a professor’s academic freedom during her term as president of Trent University. 

She will be expected to provide a factual narrative of the search committee’s hiring process, a reason for why Azarova’s candidacy was discontinued, and her conclusions on whether university policy or procedures were violated.

“It is important that we now await the results of the comprehensive review that will establish the facts of what happened and make recommendations to the University,” Gertler concluded in his statement. He added that while participation is voluntary, he would encourage anyone approached for an interview to comply.

Responses to modification

Critics noted that the changes were a step in the right direction, but that the university still has a long way to go to address other issues, including the limited mandate that some feel does not address all the issues present.

“The president’s announcement yesterday is welcome news and is an acknowledgement that the university made mistakes in the way it set up its inquiry,” Samer Muscati, a former IHRP director, wrote in an email to The Varsity. “But more needs to be done to address other fairness concerns raised by the faculty.”

Denise Réaume, one of the law professors who signed off on the open letter, also pointed out that Patterson might have a conflict because she was chosen by administrators whom she may need to investigate. “Concerns about whether President Patterson is an impartial investigator are extremely important,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity.

“As currently set, there is no confidence in the reviewer,” Vincent Wong, an IHRP research associate who resigned when the scandal broke, wrote. “I would not cooperate with such a head of review who, by her actions in the past, would lead to such an obvious and egregious reasonable apprehension of bias.”

Concerns in the open letter

Besides concerns over allegations made against Patterson, the open letter also questions the review’s mandate and potential consequences of the report’s findings. “The original terms of the review have not been altered and are vague enough to constitute a blank cheque,” Réaume wrote. 

“We just can’t see how this review can get to the bottom of the most important questions, and unless it does, the concerns about interference with academic-related decision-making at U of T will not be laid to rest.”

The letter also stressed that there are other far-reaching implications of the review that should be specifically addressed by its mandate. For example, the authority of a dean in hiring practices, the difference between the rights of faculty and managerial staff, and the question of academic freedom itself are never explicitly mentioned in the terms of the review. 

The letter concludes with an offer to consult with the university about appropriate terms for the investigation to be based on. “These are all very well-respected legal scholars whose analysis and recommendations the university must take seriously,” Muscati wrote. 

“In terms of next steps, I hope that the president takes the faculty up on their offer and consults with them about the terms needed for an adequate investigation.”