On May 20, the labour action group Scholar Strike Canada held a panel titled “Censuring the Neo Liberal University: Academic Freedom, Donors and Equity” in response to the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) decision to censure U of T over an ongoing hiring scandal in the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP).

Panelists included Anver Emon, a law and history professor; Melanie J. Newton, an associate professor in the Department of History; Denise G. Réaume, a law professor; and David Robinson, the CAUT’s executive director. Discussion surrounded the results of the Cromwell report and the long-term effects of the controversy. 

Controversy and censure

The controversy began in September 2020 when two former IHRP directors alleged that the candidacy of Dr. Valentina Azarova for the position of director of the IHRP was terminated after a judge expressed concerns over her work on Israel’s occupation of Palestine. 

Despite the conclusion of an independent review by former Supreme Court Justice Thomas Albert Cromwell that external influence did not affect the termination of Azarova’s candidacy, the CAUT ruled that other facts illuminated by the report strongly indicated that external influence did play a role in the termination of her candidacy. U of T has accepted all recommendations of the Cromwell report, and opposes the CAUT censure. 

The organization’s subsequent censure of the university means that all of its 72,000 members have been asked to boycott speaking engagements and appointments at U of T. This has led to a slew of cancelled events and, more recently, some high profile academics and organizations have announced their support for the boycott. 

U of T has maintained that it disagrees with the CAUT’s decision and believes that the organization does not have authority over this case since the position was managerial rather than academic. It has also outlined a plan to strengthen its hiring process and review the IHRP, stating that Azarova is free to reapply for the position once they start a new hiring process for the position.

Opinions on the Cromwell report

A prominent theme of the panel was the Cromwell report, which seemingly exonerated the university by concluding that Azarova’s candidacy was terminated due to immigration concerns rather than because of her academic work. 

However, the panelists were skeptical of the report’s conclusion. Emon noted that maintaining standards of judicial ethics — such as an understanding of how to weigh evidence — when conducting reviews is an important part of law. Emon said that Cromwell should not have only been considering the possibility of interference in the hiring process but also its plausibility, clarifying that while it was possible that external influence did not play a part in the termination, it was not likely.

“It’s also possible that I’ve been to the moon, but it’s not plausible. It’s not probable,” said Emon. 

Réaume also questioned the methodology of the report, particularly the fact that Cromwell was the sole person appointed to review the situation. She stated that it is common practice for three-member panels to be set up in these situations so that the different parties can offer opposing perspectives. 

To that point, Beverly Bain, the panel organizer and a lecturer in the Department of Historical Studies, commented that the report was essentially “a white, powerful man investigating another white, powerful man.”

Censure and going forward

The importance of academic freedom was also a significant topic of discussion at the panel, as panelists saw the possibility of a candidate’s academic writings affecting her appointment at U of T as a huge breach of academic freedom. 

Robinson stressed that censure, like the one imposed on U of T, is a “last resort” that’s very rarely used — in fact, it hasn’t been used since 2008. According to Robinson, the CAUT’s decision to go forward with the censure sends a strong message that the university has “violated key foundational principles such as academic freedom, collegial governance, or institutional autonomy.”

He added that it was “reprehensible” that a donor was able to influence the university in such a way, especially since universities and colleges are supposed to serve the interests of the public.

Moreover, the panel discussed what the controversy meant for the future of the academic community and its students. 

“This whole situation is a result of universities and governments denying the right of a particular kind of scholarship, that being scholarship on Palestine,” Bain said. Newton added that there’s a long history of donor influence excluding communities from academia, which Newton sees as upholding systemic racism and undermining the trust of academics in their institutions. 

“The intergenerational consequences of this kind of behaviour are staggering,” Newton lamented. “And the intellectual impoverishment that results [from this], for students and for the wider society… takes a long time to rectify.”