As the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) censure against U of T enters its fourth week, the protest has begun to gain traction outside the academic community.

The original censure mandate calls on the CAUT’s 72,000 members, which include teachers, librarians, and other Canadian academic professionals, to reject speaking engagements and appointments at the university. However, some larger groups, such as Citizen Lab, a research laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, and some individuals representing legal practices, such as Saron Gebresellassi and Sherif Foda, are taking a stand against the university in other ways. 

Background on the controversy

The controversy began last year after allegations surfaced that a sitting judge’s concerns about Dr. Valentina Azarova’s criticism of Israel’s policies toward Palestine may have resulted in the termination of her candidacy for the position of director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) in the Faculty of Law.

U of T’s commissioned report on the incident, conducted by former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell, confirmed that the judge had spoken directly to an assistant vice-president about the candidate during the hiring process; however, it concluded that this had not affected the decision to terminate Azarova’s candidacy. The CAUT disagreed with Cromwell’s conclusion and censured the university near the end of April.

In statements made to The Varsity, the university has responded that it is “disappointed” and disagrees with the CAUT’s decision to censure. It stands by Cromwell’s findings that external influence did not play a role in the decision to terminate Azarova’s candidacy.

In response cancellations of events due to the censure, 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.” 

Boycotts and refocusing the conversation

Discourse surrounding the controversy has continued to heat up as the university has yet to meet the CAUT’s requirements to end the censure. It has demanded that the university “[takes] appropriate action to resolve the issue,” and suggested that Azaraova be offered the job again. 

In addition, Canadians are responding to escalating violence in Israel and Palestine, leading many boycott participants to call for greater attention to the underlying issues.

Violence exploded between the two sides after Palestinians protested an Israeli court’s decision to forcibly expel Palestinian families from the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a decision which the United Nations stated is “prohibited under international humanitarian law.” 

As speakers have continued to drop out of speaking engagements at the university, resulting in a slew of canceled events in accordance with the censure, some have moved beyond the realm of the censure’s requests to put further pressure on the university.

Ronald Deibert, a professor of political science and the director of Citizen Lab, announced on Twitter that the laboratory, which has worked with the IHRP on two reports in the past, would not collaborate with the program until this matter was resolved and the censure was lifted.

“I am deeply concerned about how a donor may have corrupted a process that is critical to academic freedom,” Deibert wrote in an email to The Varsity. “I hope our decision will encourage the University and the Law School [to] take serious and systematic steps to correct the errors in the process that led to this situation and… extend academic freedom protections to clinic and lab directors.”

In another unconventional move, the Department of Spanish & Portugese announced that it will not be hosting any speakers from outside the university until U of T complies with the demands of the censure. This marks a departure from previous event boycotting when the censure was first announced, which largely relied on individual speakers to cancel engagements. 

Law community at large participates in boycott

On May 10, Saron Gebresellassi of Saron Legal Professional Corporation announced that her firm would not participate in clinical partnerships with U of T or its Faculty of Law until the conditions of the censure were met. 

Meanwhile, Sherif Foda, a criminal defense lawyer based in Toronto, announced via Twitter that he would no longer take formal or informal applications for employment opportunities from U of T students. The announcement was met with backlash — students and academic professionals who support the censure argued over whether the move was an appropriate boycotting tactic given the impact it may have on students.

In an interview with The Varsity, Foda made clear that he thought the debate over his announcement distracted from the heart of the case, which he sees as being about Palestinian rights. He said that while the conversation around academic freedom is an important one, it must be thought of as “a means to an end and not an end in and of itself.”

“[Our] ability… to understand the importance of the particular [case of] academic freedom in question rests on our ability to understand the stakes and the interests underlying the whole dispute,” Sherif explained. “Here, those interests are Palestinian human rights, international sovereignty, and international law principles.” 

In response to criticism that his move targeted students instead of the university itself, Foda explained that postsecondary students are crucial to advancing human rights and that the institutions they attend are as well. Consequently, it is of the utmost importance that they receive a solid human rights education and can be proud of the stances that their university takes. 

Foda added that he hopes the conversation will refocus on Palestinian rights and that his actions will ultimately result in better educational outcomes for students.

Though Ryan Deshpande, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Law, thought Foda’s decision divided the censure movement, he agreed that the discussion surrounding what is an appropriate boycott ultimately distracted from the issues at hand, which he said were academic freedom and Palestinian rights. 

“It was just a little bit irritating that this was a distraction, because the censure is important,” Deshpande said. “This sort of blew into this big discussion on Twitter that is frankly in the university’s favour, because now the people who support the censure are all fighting amongst one another.”