Union halts boycott as Toronto renews job offer to Israel critic

Valentina Azarova declines to take human rights position, but CAUT suspends censure and claims academic freedom win

September 17, 2021
University of Toronto, mental health policies

The University of Toronto has agreed to reinstate a job offer to an academic critical of Israel, apparently ending several months of scholarly boycotts by Canada’s main faculty association.

The scholar and human rights lawyer, Valentina Azarova, then declined to take the position as director of Toronto’s international human rights programme, according to the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

CAUT, however, suspended its first censure against an institution in more than a decade, saying Toronto’s renewed job offer appears to have met the main condition for ending CAUT’s call for academics to reject all appointments or speaking engagements at the university.

The decision by Toronto was a “victory for academic freedom”, CAUT said in a statement attributed to its executive committee.

CAUT noted that the censure, while suspended, remains formally in effect until the University of Toronto addresses other attached conditions concerning policies to prevent such actions in the future.

Dr Azarova is an international law practitioner and researcher at the University of Manchester chosen unanimously in August 2020 by a search panel of Toronto’s law faculty to lead the human rights programme.

But Dr Azarova has written critically of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people, and a prominent Toronto alumnus and donor sympathetic to Israel allegedly intervened and caused the job offer to be withdrawn.

CAUT said that Dr Azarova, “after careful consideration”, had declined the renewed job offer.

“Her decision, while unfortunate, is understandable given the university’s initial reaction to the unfounded and scurrilous attacks on her reputation and her research,” CAUT said in its statement.

Toronto rejected any suggestion of impropriety or interference in academic freedom in its handling of the case, but agreed to commission an outside review. That review, by Thomas Cromwell, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, concluded that Dr Azarova was not hired after the original job offer because of “immigration and timing issues, and not as a result of external influence”, the university said.

CAUT said it would decide at a leadership meeting scheduled for late November on whether to formally end the censure of Toronto. The new job offer satisfies the “key condition”, it said.

But, it said, “the full censure will not be formally lifted until the university resolves all the issues in the case, including explicitly extending academic freedom protections to academic managerial positions and developing policies that prohibit donor interference in internal academic affairs”.

In a statement, Toronto said that it “welcome[d]” the pausing of the censure.

“The provostial guidelines on donations were recently updated to make some requirements even more explicit, including reaffirming the primacy of academic priorities and approvals in directing fundraising activity, and accentuating the importance of institutional autonomy and confidentiality in all hiring decisions,” the university said.

“It also clarified appropriate terms for interaction with alumni and donors. All advancement staff have attended mandatory training sessions over the past few weeks on appropriate boundaries in donor relations and the recent updates to our policies and guidelines.

“In addition, an advisory group…is examining appropriate protections for professional/managerial staff whose duties may require them to work on controversial topics. The advisory group is conducting consultations and seeking input from all members of the [university] community. The group aims to report back in October.”

Toronto said that it was “keen to strengthen” the international human rights programme “and to see it under long-term leadership as soon as possible”. Rebecca Cook, a professor emerita, has agreed to serve as interim director.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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