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Bonnie Patterson resigns as lead reviewer of IHRP hiring controversy following concerns surrounding impartiality

Former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell serving as replacement
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U of T’s Faculty of Law has received a lot of criticism over the alleged rescinded offer of employment for Azarova. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY
U of T’s Faculty of Law has received a lot of criticism over the alleged rescinded offer of employment for Azarova. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY

Following public concerns over her impartiality, Bonnie Patterson has resigned as the lead of inquiry into the hiring process of Valentina Azarova for the director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) position at U of T’s Faculty of Law. 

Allegedly, Azarova received an offer for the position that was then rescinded when a judge and donor interfered due to her criticism of Israel in relation to Palestine. The dean of the Faculty of Law and U of T’s Vice-President Human Resources Kelly Hannah-Moffat both denied the allegations of external influence.

Following the resignation, U of T President Meric Gertler announced in December that former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell will be replacing Patterson. The resignation has received praise as it follows concerns that Patterson’s appointment was inappropriate given her record on issues of academic freedom. However, some remain unconvinced that the review will provide any meaningful insight if it skirts around issues of academic freedom.

Changes to the review process

After Patterson was appointed as the lead reviewer, critics of the review raised concerns about her involvement in a similar scandal in 2001 while she was president of Trent University. There, Patterson allegedly denied reappointment to a professor who had criticized a decision made by the university. A report by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) about the matter concluded that Patterson had violated the professor’s academic freedom. 

In a letter released on December 7, Gertler made it clear that while he and Patterson both disagreed with the allegations levelled against her, she was stepping down to “protect the integrity of the review process.” To date, Patterson had made initial contact with faculty members to arrange for interviews.

Cromwell has been working on the review since December and is expected to turn in a report to Gertler in a reasonable amount of time by or after March 15. He has also been asked to offer advice on any “matters” that may arise from the review.

Participation for faculty and staff remains voluntary, and the review is “non-disciplinary.” Its primary goal is to determine whether university policy or practices were breached, including those related to academic freedom “if applicable.” 

Gertler also reiterated his and the university’s commitment to conducting an independent and transparent review. Previously, the review had faced criticism for not being transparent enough and independent enough from the people involved. 

The news of the resignation and new appointment was well received by some critics of the review. Samer Muscati, a former director of the IHRP, wrote in an email to The Varsity, “It seems that the university president is finally paying heed to legal scholars and the law school community… Hopefully this will now be a fairer process that will get us closer to the truth of what happened.”

Academic freedom and CAUT censure

Despite improvements, many remain concerned over the university’s attempts to frame the position of director for the IHRP as “non-academic,” and consequently, they are concerned at attempts to remove discussions of academic freedom from the greater dialogue. 

“Throughout this affair, I keep hearing the university president, the VP of Human Resources and the Dean either explicitly or implicitly try to portray what happened as not connected to academic freedom,” Muscati wrote. “But academic freedom is guaranteed in these types of staff positions regardless of whether one is faculty or a director.”

The CAUT, which has threatened U of T with censure if it does not rectify the situation in six months time, seems to agree. In a blog post, David Robinson, the executive director of the CAUT, outlined its policy on academic freedom, writing that both faculty and administrative positions must have academic freedom. 

CAUT’s policy “flatly rejects any distinction between the protections for academic freedom enjoyed by ordinary faculty members and that of those serving in administrative posts,” Robinson wrote in the post. Despite the changes to the review, the CAUT’s member organizations will still have a vote in five months on whether to censure U of T, and the censure will only move forward if the majority votes to do so.