The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Council has voted to censure U of T over a hiring controversy that erupted at the Faculty of Law this past fall, in which an appointment for the director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) was allegedly rescinded following external influence. 

The organization’s 72,000 members — which include teachers, librarians, and other academic professionals across the country — will now be asked to not accept appointments or speaking engagements from the university.

The CAUT had previously threatened the university with censure in October following the initial allegations, and provided the university with a six-month timeline to rectify the situation. The organization has now decided that the university’s actions were a violation of academic freedom that has not been sufficiently resolved, causing the first censure the organization has imposed since 2008. 

Although a report commissioned by the university found that the external influence was not what caused the termination of the hiring, the review process has long faced criticism, most recently for relying on subjective beliefs and having a limited mandate for the investigation. 

Allegations of interference

The decision comes after a months-long scandal surrounding allegations that former dean Edward Iacobucci terminated Valentina Azarova’s candidacy for the position of director of the IHRP because of external influence from a judge. Iacobucci has consistently denied the allegations of interference. 

The revelation that the judge’s concerns over Azarova’s criticisms of Israel’s occupation of Palestine may have affected the hiring process sparked outcry and resulted in the resignations of all three members of the faculty’s advisory board and one of the program’s two research associates.

To investigate the situation, the university charged former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell with conducting a review, which was released in March. 

While Cromwell found that the alleged conversation between a judge and an assistant vice-president did occur, he concluded that immigration complications, rather than external influence, caused the termination. 

CAUT response

However, the CAUT disagrees with Cronwell’s conclusion. CAUT Executive Director David Robinson said in a statement that after reviewing the facts for themselves, the council found it “implausible” that external influence did not trigger the decision to terminate the candidacy. 

In an email to The Varsity, Robinson added that CAUT council delegates thought Cromwell’s mandate was too limited, since it did not include determining “credibility or plausibility,” even when there were conflicting accounts of what happened. 

Unlike Cromwell, the council was unconvinced by Iacobucci’s “subjective belief that he was not influenced by the Donor.” They felt that an objective review of the facts showed it probable that the judge’s interference did affect the decision.

Censure will be lifted when the CAUT feels that the university “has taken steps to resolve the problem.” At the moment, they feel the easiest way to do that would be to once again offer the position to Azarova. 

“If it is true… [that] there was no issue with Dr. Azarova’s qualifications and her views on Palestine and Israel were not relevant to the decision to abort the hiring process, then just offer her the job,” Robinson wrote.

Response from U of T 

A U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity, “We are disappointed and we disagree with the CAUT’s vote,” in response to the CAUT’s decision.

The spokesperson wrote that the university stands by Cromwell’s report in finding no breach of academic freedom or that external influence was a factor in the hiring decision, and that they “have apologized to the candidate for the breach of confidentiality which was not consistent with our high standards.” They also noted that the position in question was not an academic position, but rather a managerial one.

The spokesperson added that, in accordance with the report’s recommendations, changes will be implemented to strengthen confidentiality in hiring and creating stronger policies on how to deal with external parties. There will also be a new committee formed “to recommend appropriate forms of protection for professional/managerial staff whose job duties may require them to take on controversial or unpopular causes.”

According to the spokesperson, before the university re-advertises the position, Professor Rebecca Cook, founder of the IHRP, will be finishing a report on strengthening the program, which will undergo faculty consultations. 

“We remain committed to academic freedom for academics, including academic administrators, and to search processes that are confidential and insulated from external pressures whatever their source,” the spokesperson concluded.

Editor’s note (April 23): This article has been updated to include comment from U of T.