On April 23, Kent Roach, a professor at the U of T Faculty of Law, resigned as the faculty chair of the Advisory Group for the David Asper Centre for Constitutional Rights in response to the university’s comments on academic freedom with respect to the hiring scandal in the faculty’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP).

In his resignation letter, Roach elaborated that he disagrees with the university’s consistent defence that protections of academic freedom do not apply to the director of the IHRP position because it is “managerial” as opposed to “academic.” Roach pointed out that U of T President Meric Gertler repeated this argument in a Globe and Mail article, where he stated that, as a result of the distinction, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) did not have jurisdiction in this case. 

Roach’s resignation comes one day after the CAUT censured U of T due to outstanding concerns of academic freedom, meaning that it now asks its 72,000 members to boycott appointments and speaking engagements at the university.  

Concerns over academic freedom erupted this past September when allegations surfaced that the candidacy of Valentina Azarova for the position of director of the IHRP may have been affected by the external influence of a sitting tax court judge. The judge allegedly told an assistant vice-president that Azarova’s hiring may hurt the university’s reputation due to her criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

A review commissioned by U of T and conducted by former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell did not agree with allegations that the external influence influenced the hiring decision, concluding that Azarova’s candidacy was instead terminated due to immigration complications. However, the CAUT decided that from its review of the facts, it is probable that external influence did play a role.

Academic freedom in managerial positions

The CAUT censure and public criticism of the handling of the situation both express a growing unease with the university’s defence that even if Azarova’s academic freedom was infringed upon, it was not the responsibility of the university to protect it since the position is managerial.

Despite finding that the external influence did not influence the hiring decision, Cromwell’s report noted that the Faculty of Law’s clinical directors may have to make “unpopular decisions,” suggesting that the university reconsider its position. Hence, the university committed to making staff “aware of the relevant policies” and “[examining] appropriate forms of protection for professional staff in such positions.” 

Roach emphasized the issue of protections for clinical directors in his resignation, writing that it shows a misunderstanding of academic freedom and the role of clinical directors at the Faculty of Law. 

He wrote in an email to The Varsity that the university’s position “sends a chilling message” to clinical directors since they will not get full academic freedom protections. 

“The University’s position is fundamentally wrong, elitist and arrogant,” he wrote. “It is an insult to our clinical programs and those that run them.”

Implementing formal protections

In an email to The Varsity following Roach’s resignation, a U of T spokesperson wrote that Gertler “indicated in his response to the Cromwell report that he will take up the recommendation to consider appropriate protections for professional/managerial staff whose job duties may require them to adopt controversial or unpopular causes.”

Gertler has asked Vice-President & Provost Cheryl Regher and Vice-President Human Resources & Equity Kelly Hannah-Moffat to co-chair a committee that would “consider this issue thoroughly and make specific recommendations.”

Still, Roach argued in his resignation letter that the current system “is an invitation to attempts to interfere with the work of [the Faculty of Law’s] legal clinics” and that he is not confident the university will implement formal protections. “The University of Toronto repeatedly has not had the back of its clinical instructors at the law faculty,” Roach wrote. “It needs a remedial system that provides real protection and remedies as opposed to hollow platitudes to protect the academic freedom of these instructors.”

Roach is the second chair of a committee of this kind to resign over the scandal, the first being Audrey Macklin of the International Human Rights Clinic when the hiring story first broke. Both Macklin and Roach have regularly represented their clinics in court. In his email, Roach wrote that his and Macklin’s resignations are indicative of “a continued breakdown in collegial governance at the Faculty of Law.”

While he would be happy to return to his position as faculty chair, Roach wrote that he would not do so until the university took steps toward true reconciliation by changing its position on the managerial nature of clinical directors. Until then, he believes it to be his responsibility as a tenured professor to stand up for his colleagues. 

“Vague talk about the University being committed to academic freedom or reconciliation is not enough especially given the U of T’s shameful argument… that CAUT has no jurisdiction because clinic directors are not ‘academic staff,’” Roach concluded in his email. 

“No wonder CAUT unanimously voted to censure the University.”

Editor’s note (May 3): Article has been updated to clarify wording surrounding the position from which Roach was resigning.