Retired Supreme Court Judge to Head U of T Hiring Controversy

Dec. 21, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

A former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada will head an inquiry into how the University of Toronto handled the hiring of a scholar with a history of anti-Israel activism to head a law school program.

Honourable Thomas A. Cromwell C.C
Retired Justice Thomas Cromwell

Retired Justice Thomas Cromwell, who left the high court in 2016, will review how U of T’s law school handled the controversial hiring of Valentina Azarova to head its International Human Rights Program.

The probe was supposed to be led by former Trent University president Bonnie Patterson. She stepped down, however, over public concerns about the impartiality and credibility of an investigation commissioned by university administrators who might be among its subjects.

As the public face of the review changes, B’nai Brith Canada released a 17-page submission it intends to make, and questioned the focus of media coverage of the affair.

In a news release, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn said too much media attention has been focused on allegations of donor interference in the appointment and not on the fact the job was offered to a scholar whose extensive record of anti-Israel work would ultimately harm the human rights program and the academic freedom of Jewish students in it.

Valentina Azarova

“Azarova’s longstanding commitments amount not to impartial academic work but rather to an obsession with delegitimizing Israel, and to working with a variety of extreme anti-Zionist organizations,” he wrote.

“We believe it’s vital to draw attention to a side of this story that has somehow escaped the attention it deserves,” Mostyn added. “How someone like Azarova, with a background of extreme hostility to Israel, was not only seriously considered by U of T Law’s Search Committee to lead the IHRP, but was reportedly the unanimously chosen candidate to do so, cries out for a thorough airing.”

Azarova and her supporters say she was offered the position as head of the human rights program, but the offer was then withdrawn after objections from a university donor.

The law school dean has never denied being approached by a donor, but rejected suggestions that coloured his decision. He has said an employment offer to Azarova was never made because of unspecified immigration problems.

Tax Court Judge David Spiro has been identified as the donor who objected to Azarova’s hiring. His conduct is currently being investigated by the Canadian Judicial Council, the disciplinary body for judges.

In its brief to the Cromwell review, B’nai Brith argues the hiring committee should have taken a harder look at Azarova’s “extreme one-sided history of seeking to delegitimize and demonize Israel, and her active and visible association with a multitude of virulently anti-Zionist organizations.”

B’nai Brith also urged the review to find that the university should have stopped Azarova’s candidacy once it was determined the hiring committee hadn’t addressed those issues; and that the university adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of antisemitism as a guide to the application of its policies on freedom of expression, freedom of speech and academic freedom.

The Cromwell report is scheduled to be submitted in mid-January directly to university president Meric Gertler, who has promised to make its conclusions public.

U of T Hiring Controversy Continues to Swirl

Oct. 20, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

Jewish groups are urging the University of Toronto’s law school to stand firm and not employ a scholar with a long history of criticizing Israel.

Valentina Azarova

At least two Jewish U of T faculty, B’nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation, and Canadians for Israel’s Legal Rights are calling on U of T to refuse to hire Valentina Azarova to lead the law school’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP).

U of T professors Stuart Kamenetsky and Howard Tenenbaum have started a petition arguing Azarova’s long history of targeting Israel in her writings make her unfit for the appointment.

“Frankly, we believe that she should not even have been considered as a candidate to lead the IHRP,” the professors say in their preamble.

In a news release, B’nai Brith CEO Michael Mostyn called Azarova’s past associations “worrying,” adding her body of writing is “overwhelmingly devoted, arguably obsessively committed” to Palestinian causes.

“Far from being an impartial academic, as she is often portrayed, Azarova is actively devoted to using a wide variety of platforms to promulgate anti-Israel advocacy,” Mostyn said.

Azarova and her supporters claim she was offered a position as director of the IHRP but that the offer was withdrawn after a Jewish mega-donor objected.

The controversy grew so intense that the university agreed to an “impartial review” of how the law school has handled the affair.

And the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) is threatening the school with censure.

At the same time, the Tax Court of Canada judge whose alleged interference in the hiring process ignited the affair is being investigated by the Canadian Judicial Council. 

Law school dean Edward Iacobucci has denied that a formal employment offer was ever made to Azarova because of immigration difficulties.

Azarova’s supporters allege the university reneged on the deal because Justice David Spiro of the Tax Court objected to her history of legal writing that has accused Israel of widespread violations of Palestinian human rights. Spiro and his extended family are major donors to the university.

CAUT says if the allegation of donor interference in the appointment is true, it violates the principle of academic freedom.

On Oct. 15, CAUT’s executive council passed a motion approving a process of censuring U of T if “satisfactory steps” are not taken.

The imposition of censure still requires the approval of CAUT’s governing body. That meeting is set for Nov. 27.

Censure by the association would ask its more than 70,000 members at 125 universities and colleges across the country to refuse appointments, speaking engagements or honours at the University of Toronto.

In addition, CAUT will also “widely publicize” the dispute and ask associations of academic staff in other countries to respect the censure.

“The facts that have emerged strongly suggest the decision to cancel Azarova’s appointment was politically motivated, and as such would constitute a serious breach of widely recognized principles of academic freedom,” CAUT executive director David Robinson said in an Oct. 15 statement.

In an earlier letter to U of T president Meric Gertler, Robinson said that “an institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its purpose and mission if it accedes to outside pressure or asserts the power to proscribe ideas, no matter how controversial.”

CAUT’s voice is only part of the chorus condemning the situation around Azarova’s hiring. The entire advisory board to the International Human Rights Program, and a member of the search committee, resigned in protest. Lawyers and academics from around the world have expressed anger.

Last week, for example, a letter signed by nine U of T law school faculty accused Iacobucci of “high handed” management that threatens to destroy the institution’s reputation.

Another letter to Gertler from 200 international law and human rights practitioners and law school faculty and staff said the signers were “deeply concerned” the dean allowed external pressure to influence an appointment.

They called for an investigation of the affair, reinstatement of the offer to Azarova, sanctions against those responsible at the university, and apologies to Azarova and affected faculty and staff.

Iacobucci has never denied that a donor contacted the school about the potential appointment. In a letter to law school faculty released by the university, he called claims of outside interference “untrue and objectionable.”

He added: “Other considerations, including political views for and against any candidate, or their scholarship, were and are irrelevant.”

University leaders have backed that position since September, but on Oct. 14, they announced an independent review of the controversy to be led by Bonnie Patterson, former president of Trent University and the Council of Ontario Universities.

In a statement on the university’s website, Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s vice-president of human resources and equity, said Patterson is to “review all relevant documents and conduct interviews in order to provide (a) a comprehensive factual narrative of events pertaining to the search committee process and (b) the basis for the decision to discontinue the candidacy of the search committee’s preferred candidate.”

Participation in the review is voluntary and Patterson’s recommendations will be made public. Her report is due in January.

The terms of reference for the review have drawn derision from commentators, however.

James Turk, director of Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression, told the CJR that “there’s not much investigation left to do” because the facts of the case are already well known.

Both Turk and Robinson criticized the review’s terms of reference, noting they do not include the central question of whether Azarova was offered a job or whether improper pressure scuttled an offer.

And a review of the affair by Hannah-Moffat, Iacobucci, and U of T provost Cheryl Regehr is also troubling because all three have been involved in the scandal, Turk said.

“Any first year law student would know this is just crazy,” he said.

In a news release, Robinson of the CAUT said the proposed study’s flaws undermine its credibility.

“Given the seriousness of the case, what is needed is an independent review,” he said in a news release. “Instead we have a deeply flawed review where the investigator is appointed by and reports to the Vice-President for Human Resources who has already publicly defended the Dean’s decision to terminate the hiring of Dr. Azarova.”

To see Prof. Azarova’s curriculum vitae, click here: https://cdn.ku.edu.tr/resume/vazarova.pdf

For Zack Babins’ view on the Azarova controversy, click here.