U of T Law Profs Demand Hiring Decision be Reversed

The U of T Faculty of Law (Photo by Ken Lund/Flickr Creative Commons)

A group of University of Toronto law school professors are demanding the institution hire a scholar who has been highly critical of Israel to head its International Human Rights Program.

In a letter to UofT president Meric Gertler, seven law school faculty say it’s clear a wealthy donor was allowed to interfere with the hiring of Valentina Azarova and, because of that, she should be offered the job immediately.

The professors also dismiss a review of the controversy by retired Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell as a “whitewash” designed to cover up donor interference in university decisions.

“It is virtually indisputable that, regardless of the former Dean’s motives, Justice (David) Spiro’s improper intervention was the ‘but for’ cause for the termination of negotiations with Dr. Azarova. Accordingly, and based on the undisputed facts of the Cromwell Report, the easiest path forward to effect reconciliation – if that is indeed the desire of the University and the Faculty of Law – is simply to offer Dr. Azarova the position of Director of the IHRP. The only way to rectify the undeniable harm done to her is to offer her this position promptly,” they wrote.

“Only by offering her the position will the University and the Faculty of Law unequivocally repudiate the still lingering suspicion, which the uncontested facts of the Cromwell Report have only served to strengthen, that the failure to give Dr. Azarova the directorship of the IHRP was a result of improper donor influence.”

In August of last year, a committee recommended hiring Azarova for the director’s job at the law school’s prestigious International Human Rights Program. Negotiations over terms of her employment were abruptly halted, however, after a Jewish alumnus and major donor said hiring her would cause trouble for the school in the Jewish community and impact fundraising.

That donor has been identified as Justice David Spiro, a judge of the Tax Court of Canada. His alleged conduct is being probed by the Canadian Judicial Council, the disciplinary body for Canadian judges.

Amid a storm of protest the university hired Cromwell to review the school’s handling of the affair. In a report issued last month, he concluded problems with getting Azarova a Canadian work permit, not donor interference, resulted in her being denied the position.

In their seven-page letter, however, professors Anver Emon, Mohammad Fadel, Ariel Katz, Trudo Lemmens, Jeffrey MacIntosh, Denise Reaume and David Schneiderman argue there are “fundamental weaknesses” in Cromwell’s analysis of the controversy. They also “dismiss outright” two of his key recommendations.

The professors are especially troubled by allegations that Spiro contacted the university after he was told by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) that a scholar with a long history of attacking Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the “occupied territories” was being considered for the position. CIJA, they allege in turn, was told of the situation by another professor from outside Canada.

“Far from establishing that there was no basis for concern that donor interference was a factor in the Dean’s reasoning, the information Mr. Cromwell assembled from different sources, provides additional reasons why reasonable persons could conclude that donor interference was at least a factor, even the predominant factor, in the former Dean’s decision making,” they wrote.

“It takes a remarkable degree of naiveté – or wilful blindness – in the face of these uncontested facts to conclude that Justice Spiro did not attempt to interfere in the hiring process but was merely sharing his views to encourage ‘due diligence.’ But even if this were true, such sharing of views would amount to a gross interference in a confidential job search and is indisputable evidence of egregious violations of University hiring procedures.”

One of Cromwell’s key recommendations was that members of hiring committees be required to sign confidentiality agreements, an idea the professors reject out of hand.

Such a step, they argue, “would further undermine the ability of faculty to ask questions, stifle whistle blowing, reduce public accountability, and suppress the disclosure of controversies related to internal wrongdoing. Implementing this recommendation will not only be against the public interest, but will also render hollow the University Statement on Freedom of Speech, which includes the right to criticize the University. How can one criticize the University without disclosing the details that underlie the criticism?”

The only way to heal the wounds of the controversy, they conclude, is to immediately give Azarova the job she was improperly denied.

Cromwell’s report has also been dissected by Richard Moon, a University of Windsor law professor, author and husband of one of the UofT committee members who recommended hiring Azarova.

In a blog post on the website of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, he argues the allegations of donor interference can’t be dismissed simply by pointing to Cromwell’s review.

“The university seeks to move past this controversy by pointing to this report, from a former Supreme Court of Canada judge, as absolving the administration of any impropriety. Surely, insists the university, no one would question the findings of such an eminent figure,” he writes.

“But if anyone still thinks that we should simply defer to findings of a former judge of Supreme Court of Canada, consider this: Cromwell delivered the keynote address at a CIJA run conference, while he was in the process of writing his report. Remember it was a CIJA staff member who asked Spiro, a former director of CIJA, to contact the university about Azarova. How could a former Supreme Court of Canada judge not recognize the necessity of avoiding such a conflict?”

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