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Opinion: CAUT censure holds U of T accountable

While the censure is rightfully imposed, it complicates the university’s path to resolution
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The CAUT censure began after the U of T Faculty of Law's rescindment of an offer of employment to Valentina Azarova. LOVISA HANSEN/THE VARSITY
The CAUT censure began after the U of T Faculty of Law's rescindment of an offer of employment to Valentina Azarova. LOVISA HANSEN/THE VARSITY

After giving a six-month timeline to rectify allegations of a violation of academic freedom in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) has built a cage of academic isolation around the university. The CAUT has imposed a rare censure on the university, meaning the organization’s 70,000 members — including teachers, librarians, and distinguished academic professionals across Canada — will be asked to stop accepting speaking opportunities and appointments from U of T.

It’s a classic form of punishment; one person does something wrong, and the whole class gets punished. The censure has not only impacted the Faculty of Law, but affects the entire university. As Patrick Ness writes in The Knife of Never Letting Go, “If one of us falls, we all fall.”

The censure is the most recent event to transpire following the initial controversy that caught our attention back in fall 2020 when U of T’s Faculty of Law allegedly rescinded an offer of employment to Valentina Azarova after a sitting judge on the Tax Court of Canada — who is also a U of T alum and donor to the law school — expressed concerns over her work on Israeli settlement in Palestinian territories. Initially, Azarova, a well-distinguished international scholar, was unanimously selected by the hiring committee as the top candidate for the position of director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP), and she claimed to have accepted an oral offer for the position in August 2020. 

Following the allegations of external interference, U of T hired Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell, who released a report on the incident. The report concluded that complications regarding immigration was what led to the termination of her candidacy, not the judge’s concerns. Furthermore, the university has continued to deny accusations of external interference.

What’s left of U of T’s sticky situation is a scarlet letter posted firmly on the institution’s forehead with uncertainty regarding how long it will take for the university to fight for its removal. 

The CAUT’s actions are not uncalled for; the censure is well-deserved and far from arbitrary. Despite the disappointment and disagreement that the university responded with, the punishment it is receiving is not without a productive purpose. 

When it comes to holding the university accountable, the censure evidently hits that checkmark quite accurately and legitimately. Extending the consequences to the entire university creates a larger impact along with a collective lesson about accountability and responsibility. Not to mention, the censure perfectly projects a red alert warning message to U of T’s administration about what it cannot get away with behind the scenes of a hiring process. 

The severity of the issue that U of T is facing has not gone unnoticed. Like a domino effect, the censure has led to some people and organizations ending their partnerships with the Faculty of Law and the university until the issue has been resolved.

Jameel Jaffer, who has been affiliated with the Munk School of Global Affairs as a Distinguished Fellow for more than five years, has ended his affiliation. “I do this with regret, and with the hope that the unfortunate circumstances that make this necessary will be addressed by the University quickly,” he wrote in an open letter to U of T President Meric Gertler that he posted on Twitter. 

Jaffer’s tweet belongs to a slew of posts that saw prominent figures publicly withdraw from their association with U of T, including Director of the Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs Ronald Deibert. “It is essential that the university is free from both external influences and appearances of external influence,” Deibert wrote in a tweet. “The principle of academic freedom demands it.”

Sherif Foda, a criminal defence lawyer, announced via Twitter that he will no longer be accepting applicants from U of T’s Faculty of Law at his firm for any placement or positions until the situation is resolved. On a similar note, Amnesty International, which has worked with the Faculty of Law to provide opportunities and fellowships for students, has suspended its four-year partnership with U of T in support of the CAUT censure. 

However, even when one of the largest and most renowned international human rights organizations in the world decides to cut all ties with U of T in light of disturbing allegations, the university has still not claimed any wrongdoing.

As organizations and people continue to break up with U of T, whether or not U of T will admit defeat and crawl back for the sake of its faculty and students is a separate issue. This problem is larger than the U of T administration and if not fixed, the controversy will negatively impact students who have nothing to do with the university’s hiring practices. It’s selfish of the university to continue to stand its ground and claim innocence even when all relevant details seriously question that fact. 

The idea that the truth can set you free becomes a little more complicated when the prospects of learning the truth are blurry. The two different sides of the story that are being told have caused a solid stalemate. 

On one hand, the Cromwell report concluded that serious obstacles relating to immigration were behind the university’s decision to rescind Azarova’s offer. Given this particular side of the story, Gertler has expressed that he is “disappointed that CAUT has effectively rejected all of that analysis and all of that evidence” presented by Cromwell. In fact, Gertler claimed that Cromwell concluded Azarova never even received a formal job offer. 

On the other hand, the CAUT believed that external political pressures and opposing opinions against Azarova’s work on human rights in Israel and Palestine were at play in U of T’s “serious breach of widely recognized principles of academic freedom,” as stated in a news release. The CAUT stated that it was “implausible” that judicial influence was not behind the Faculty of Law’s decision, which just makes the controversy all the more complicated and genuinely confusing. 

If the censure is based on the CAUT’s examination of one series of facts that proves that academic freedom was violated, while U of T claims that the CAUT is neglecting evidence that suggests otherwise, the idea of moving forward gets a whole lot messier. This censure should be a way of pressuring the university to get its act together, but this becomes hard to do when U of T — which is facing the consequences for its actions — fails to accept that the censure may be justified. 

The ‘he said, she said’ dynamic that has shaped this controversy from the very beginning makes resolution a complicated task. Until the cold stalemate is broken, the censure firmly remains, and its consequences will continue to persist as the university collectively bears their brunt.  

Instead of prolonging the blame game, looking into rectifying and filling in the cracks of the IHRP’s practices should be the priority. Isn’t that what got U of T in this mess in the first place? In addition to considering the hiring policy changes recommended by the Cromwell report, the university needs to confront the question of how much sway it wants its donors to have over who is and is not hired.

This controversy, the censure, and the associated threat to U of T’s reputation will not end so long as the reality of the situation remains unclear. Until there is an agreed upon truth, the university is in for a long ride. 

 

Mélina Lévesque will be graduating from U of T in June 2021 with an Honours Bachelor of Arts in political science and anthropology.