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IHRP controversy report concludes external pressure did not influence hiring decision

Changes recommended to record decisions, create policy on third-party inquiries
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The Jackman Law Building. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY
The Jackman Law Building. MICHAEL PHOON/THE VARSITY

On March 15, former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell released the report on his independent review into the controversy surrounding the hiring of Valentina Azarova as the director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at U of T’s Faculty of Law.

The controversy began in September, after Azarova alleged that the faculty rescinded a job offer following external influence by a judge who was concerned about her potential appointment due to her writings on Palestine.

Cromwell concluded that he “would not draw the inference” that external influence affected the dean’s decision to discontinue Azarova’s candidacy given the facts at hand. 

The report confirms that alum and donor Judge David Spiro of the federal tax court did approach an assistant vice-president after being asked by a member of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs to find out the state of Azarova’s candidacy. However, Cromwell noted that though the dean of the Faculty of Law at that time, Edward Iacobucci, knew of Spiro’s inquiry, he considered it “irrelevant” to his decision.

Since the release of the report, U of T professors and other current and former members of the IHRP community have been vocal about what they see as a discrepancy between the facts and the conclusion. 

Report findings

Cromwell’s report established a timeline for the events that occurred during the hiring process of the director of the IHRP and later resulted in the Azarova hiring story. 

According to Cromwell, Spiro “indicated” in a conversation with the assistant vice-president that the appointment of Azarova would be “controversial and could cause reputational harm to the University.” 

Cromwell could not determine whether the assistant vice-president approached Iacobucci, though a later email implies that she did. He also confirmed that the dean eventually found out about the controversy through the assistant dean of alumni and development. 

Iacobucci denied that his inquiry into the hiring process and his ultimate decision to discontinue Azarova’s candidacy was influenced by the concerns Spiro raised. 

Ultimately, Cromwell concluded that the primary factors in discontinuing her candidacy were residence and timing complications. On September 3, the assistant dean, who had been heavily involved in the hiring process, was informed by German legal counsel that the university’s  plan to hire Azarova as an independent contractor until she could obtain a work permit could be interpreted as “illegal.” 

In his reasoning for concluding that external influence did not play a role in the dean’s decision, Cromwell explained that such an inference could not be supported by some of the facts and that the “willingness to draw the inference gives no weight to the Dean’s insistence that external influence played no role in his decision.”

Based on his findings, Cromwell made several recommendations as to how the university can  avoid such controversy in the future. These recommendations include that key decisions should be recorded, a policy should be created that explicitly outlines how to deal with third-party inquiries on recruitment, and the role of the selection committee should be outlined more clearly. 

University reactions

In response to Cromwell’s findings, U of T President Meric Gertler released a statement reaffirming the university’s dedication to strengthen its policy and protocols in accordance with the recommendations made. 

Gertler accepted the recommendations made for protecting confidentiality and agreed to examine forms of protection for staff in non-academic positions that might require them to take unpopular stances. Moreover, he stated that he had already written to Azarova to apologize for the breach of confidentiality.

In an email to The Varsity, Gertler added that the university would focus on creating a protocol for handling third-party inquiry into the recruitment process and “reaffirm that attempts by anyone… to block, prevent or disqualify an applicant in a hiring process on the basis of the candidate’s religious or political views, scholarly or other public work or social activism must be firmly rejected.”

The new dean of the Faculty of Law, Jutta Brunnée, added that she looks forward to promoting reconciliation by engaging with the community, and that the IHRP will begin to search for a new candidate after having more conversations with members of the Faculty of Law community. 

Community criticisms 

Several relevant university stakeholders were unsatisfied with the conclusion of the report. In an email to The Varsity, Vincent Wong, a former IHRP research assistant who resigned due to the controversy, wrote that Cromwell’s report confused external influence as the primary factor with external influence as one of the factors of the dean’s decision to discontinue the candidacy.

It is very reminiscent of a lot of human rights cases in which, for instance, sexism or racism cannot be pointed to as the primary factor motivating a decision… but all the contextual factors point to discriminatory treatment,” Wong explained.

He added that Cromwell seemed very willing to accept the dean’s denial of external influence despite the “contextual factors.” Wong wrote that the report is a prime example of how rhetoric could be used to come to any conclusion, and that many of the people who had decision-making powers in the university’s handling of the situation were white men.

“The consequences speak for themselves: Dr. Azarova has still lost her job, I as a person of colour have lost my job in order to faithfully bring details of this incident to light, Palestinian rights and international law with respect to the Israel/Palestine situation are now demonstrably a taboo subject in the law school, and the white men who are at the heart of this impropriety have thus far escaped any sort of accountability.”

In a Toronto Star article, Shree Paradkar argued that if the review is to be believed, then the barriers that led to Azarova’s candidacy, such as questions of whether she would need to be present during summers, no longer apply. Paradkar argued that the university could, and should, still hire Azarova.

That same piece quoted Denise Reaume, a professor in the Faculty of Law, as claiming that since the position of director still needs to be filled and since the university has until September to do so, there is a lot of time for Azarova to obtain a work permit.

In an article for iPolitics, Alan Freeman raised concerns about the report’s lack of investigation into how Azarova’s name was leaked in the first place. Wong expressed a similar sentiment, writing that “The bottom line is that a breach occurred, an attempt to interfere took place, and the appointment of a highly qualified person was derailed.”

With respect to the censure of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) — who had previously threatened U of T with censure — Gertler released a letter he sent the organization that claimed, “In view of Mr. Cromwell’s findings… there is no factual foundation to support your motion and it should not move ahead.”

Wong, on the other hand, hopes that the CAUT will continue putting pressure on the university “until redress is done for those harmed, but particularly [for Azarova].”