In response to the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) censure of U of T over a hiring scandal in the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP), several academic professionals have pulled out of speaking engagements at the university, resulting in a slew of cancelled events across U of T in the past week.

Speakers and event coordinators expressed concerns over a possible breach of academic freedom and the university’s response to the controversy and censure. They also emphasized the need for solidarity in the academic community and a substantive response from the university. 

In response to the cancellations, a university spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that the university will continue “to be a place where people want to work, study and do research,” and it will “continue to carry out [its] mission to educate [its] students.” 


Controversy and censure

The censure asks the CAUT’s 72,000 members to boycott all appointments and speaking engagements at U of T due to its concerns that the university has violated academic freedom. It was passed by the association’s council after a months-long controversy which started in September 2020 with an allegation that outside influence affected the termination of the candidacy of Dr. Valentina Azarova for the director of the IHRP. Two former IHRP directors claimed that an offer made to Azarova had been rescinded after a sitting judge had expressed concern about Azarova’s writings on Israel’s occupation of Palestine. 

After outcry about the termination, the university commissioned a review which was conducted by former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell. Released in March, the report confirmed that a judge had interfered in the hiring process, though Cromwell ultimately concluded that the external influence did not play a role in the termination of Azarova’s candidacy. However, the CAUT decided that the evidence available strongly indicated that it had. 

In order for the censure to be lifted, U of T would have to take steps to “resolve the problem,” which CAUT representatives believe would include re-offering Azarova the position. 

Following the announcement of the censure, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity, “We are disappointed and we disagree with the CAUT’s vote.” President Meric Gertler has also claimed that the CAUT has no jurisdiction over the case since the position in question is managerial and not a faculty position. 


Withdrawal reasons and community response

A number of speakers who pulled out of engagements confirmed that they did so in accordance with the CAUT boycott. Speakers who dropped out include academics Denise Ferreira da Silva, Raed Jad Hawa, and Nadi Abusaada, among others. 

Hawa, a professor of psychiatry at U of T, was supposed to deliver a professorial lecture on May 19, but he later cancelled it due to the CAUT censure. While most of the speakers who cancelled events were not employed by the university, Hawa is a U of T professor.

In an email to Trevor Young, Dean of the Temerty Faculty of Medicine — that was also provided to The Varsity — Hawa noted that he cancelled the event in light of the CAUT censure and his own concerns over the university’s alleged violation of Azarova’s freedom of speech. 

He added that he hopes the university “takes accountability and provides meaningful restitution… so that those of us who are proud members of the UofT community continue to carry this pride and not be burdened by the University’s ‘scarlet letter,’ as articulated by one of [his] Faculty of Law colleagues.”

Abusaada, a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, provided similar reasoning for cancelling his lecture with “Hearing Palestine,” an initiative run by the Institute of Islamic Studies. He stated that the university should fulfill the requirements of the CAUT to end the censure and “its duty to protect academic freedom.” The event, initially scheduled for April 29, was postponed. 

The event coordinators stated in an announcement that while they lamented the postponement, they stood behind Abusaada’s decision and believed the censure itself was justified. They also acknowledged the irony that, because of the event’s postponement, the censure has the unintended consequence of stifling “talk of Palestine.”

They also called on the university to meet the CAUT’s conditions “so that trust and confidence in our university’s now tarnished record on academic freedom and autonomy is restored.”

The Munk College event “Collectors, Selectors, KEEPERS and MCs: Black Feminist Sonic World-Making,” originally scheduled for April 29, was later cancelled after consultation with the speakers. Similarly, a workshop on Marxism in South Asia, run by UTM’s Centre for South Asian Civilizations was postponed due to the censure. Denise Ferreira da Silva, director of UBC’s Social Justice Institute, also pulled out of a Northrop Frye speaking engagement. 

Other members of the U of T community involved with the events expressed similar regret over the cancellations and hoped that the university would address the outstanding concerns as soon as possible. In an email to The Varsity, U of T professor Rebecca Comay, who was involved in planning of the Northrop Frye lecture, wrote that what happened at the Faculty of Law “should be alarming to everyone working, studying, and teaching in this university (and everywhere else),” adding that it sets a “chilling precedent.”

The University of Toronto Law Union has also recently aligned itself with the CAUT and written an online public letter requesting that Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, the former governor general of Canada, cancel an upcoming speaking engagement at the university. 

Editor’s note (May 5): A previous version of this article incorrectly claimed that Rebecca Comay was involved in the planning of the “Hearing Palestine” event.