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and her supporters say she was offered the position as head of the human rights program, but the offer was then withdrawn after objections from a university donor.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