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After CAUT censure pause, concerns remain about lack of transparency, accountability

Supporters of censure see conclusion as bittersweet
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The Jackman Law Building. MICHEAL PHOON/THE VARSITY
The Jackman Law Building. MICHEAL PHOON/THE VARSITY

In wake of the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) announcement that it has paused the censure it imposed against U of T, many supporters of the censure have expressed both excitement and reservations regardings the organization’s decision.

The censure was lifted after U of T re-offered the position of the director of the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP) to Dr. Valentina Azarova, though she declined the offer. The scandal initially erupted in September 2020 when it was alleged that Azarova’s candidacy was terminated after a sitting judge and donor expressed concerns about her work on Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

First impressions

Supporters of the CAUT censure noted that, in many ways, U of T’s offer to Azarova feels like a bittersweet victory.

For Samer Muscati, former director of the IHRP, this is because he believes the university still hasn’t taken accountability for what happened. Regardless, he wrote in an email to The Varsity that he believes that the offer to Azarova is an admission by the university administration of its mistake. 

In an interview with The Varsity, CAUT President Brenda Austin-Smith stated that she is unsurprised that the university hasn’t held itself accountable for the scandal. She believes the corporatization of universities causes them to be more concerned with reputational damage than integrity. 

Vincent Wong, a former IHRP research associate, felt that the offer was “a very shrewd play by University administration,” adding that he was disappointed in the CAUT for not demanding more structural progress. 

Confidentiality issues

Some also took issue with the university’s public statements on the importance of confidentiality in the hiring process, which it has emphasized as one of its takeaways from the scandal. Muscati stated in a tweet that U of T’s emphasis on confidentiality diverts attention from other issues the scandal raised, and that it has not taken accountability.

In an analysis of the different contexts in which the university has used the word “confidentiality” throughout the scandal, Faculty of Law Professor Ariel Katz noted that, at times, the word has been used to criticize members of the university for disclosing their concerns regarding the termination of Azarova’s candidacy. 

Katz concluded that, in this context, “stricter rules may do very little to prevent donors from interfering, and will only reduce accountability and increase the University’s collegiality deficit.”

Similarly, Faculty of Law Professor Denise Réaume wrote in an email to The Varsity that certain measures that the university has taken, like creating an advisory group to review academic freedom terms for clinical positions, remain secretive. 

“The University has treated the scandal as an exercise in crisis management rather than an opportunity to open the door to a more collegial form of governance,” Réaume wrote. 

Path forward

Despite these reservations, censure supporters were happy that there were results, and added that the job of activists was not yet done.

Muscati emphasized the need for individuals to hold educational institutions responsible for breaches of academic freedom, but placed the majority of the burden on U of T, which he believes needs to work on rebuilding the IHRP, community trust, and its reputation.

Wong wrote that besides taking accountability for its mistakes, the university should also provide some form of compensation to Azarova for reputational damage and implement important cultural and structural changes to move forward. 

According to U of T, besides creating the advisory group, it has also updated its guidelines on donations and required all advancement staff to go through training sessions on appropriate boundaries in donor relations. 

The CAUT will vote on whether to terminate its censure against U of T on November 25 and 26. In an interview, Austin-Smith said that the council will be looking for evidence that U of T is moving along a path that will fulfill the CAUT’s expectations regarding policies on academic freedom and donor influence.