SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: September 17, 2020

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):University of Toronto

Region & Country:Americas | Canada

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On September 17, 2020, the University of Toronto rescinded Dr. Valentina Azarova’s job offer to serve as director of the law school’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP), apparently in response to a donor’s concerns over the scholar’s work on human rights conditions in Palestine. 

Azarova is an international law practitioner and researcher who has contributed to several international human rights enforcement mechanisms and engaged in legal actions and advocacy to confront violence in armed conflict and economic exploitation. She has consulted for and advised United Nations’ bodies and fact-finding missions.

The university reportedly made a verbal offer to Azarova in August 2020, at which point she began negotiating the details of her employment, visa, and residency. On September 10, however, Azarova reportedly received a call from an assistant dean, who informed her that she would not be receiving an offer due to concerns about securing her a visa. According to reports, at least two factors raised concerns about the university’s decision: first, while Azarova was negotiating her employment, a member of the search committee who was a leading Canadian immigration law scholar had analyzed the issue and determined that securing a visa would not be a problem; in addition, the university was functioning online at the time due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making the question of Azarova’s physical presence on campus less significant than in other years.  

Azarova and others subsequently learned that on September 4, a judge on the Tax Court of Canada who was a major donor to the university had called a high level university administrator and expressed concerns that, in light of her scholarship on Israel-Palestine, Azarova’s hiring could damage the university’s reputation. According to reports, the judge had learned of the hiring committee’s decision to hire Azarova from a professor at another institution, who had forwarded him an email titled “U of T pending appointment of major anti-Israel activist to important law school position.” The email reportedly advocated that recipients engage in “quiet discussions” with the university to reverse Azarova’s appointment. According to an assistant dean who was present during the judge’s conversations with university personnel, the judge expressed concerns that “the Jewish community would not be pleased” by Azarova’s appointment. 

As details of the process emerged, one member of the faculty advisory resigned from her post, apparently in protest. Human Rights Watch discontinued an IHRP-affiliated program and Amnesty International Canada threatened similar action. 

The university denied that political considerations were involved in the decision to rescind Azarova’s appointment, and ultimately appointed Thomas Cromwell, a retired Canadian Supreme Court judge, to conduct an independent inquiry about the case. In his report, Cromwell ultimately found that he “would not draw the inference that external influence played any role in the decision to discontinue” Azarova’s appointment. However, Cromwell’s factual findings included detailed discussion of the pattern described above. 

In April 2021, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) voted to censure the university. In a statement following the Cromwell report, CAUT’s president, David Robinson, stated: “In a close examination of the facts of the case, CAUT Council found it implausible to conclude that the donor’s call did not trigger the subsequent actions resulting in the sudden termination of the hiring process. . . The University of Toronto Administration could have re-offered the still-vacant position of Director of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) to Dr. Azarova.” 

In September 2021, the university did re-offer the position to Azarova, leading CAUT to suspend its censure. Azarova rejected the offer, stating that, although the university negotiated “in good faith and extended academic freedom protections to the position, there were important uncertainties that could not be resolved. . .In light of events over the past year, I realized that my leadership of the program would remain subject to attack by those who habitually conflate legal analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian context with hostile partisanship. I also understood that the university would not be in a position to remove these hazards”.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the rescission of an offer of employment to a scholar,  apparently arising out of a campaign by actors outside the university based on political considerations.  Non-university actors should refrain from attempting to use political influence to alter legitimate, proper, merit-based hiring decisions by university administrations. Universities should likewise implement proper policies and procedures to ensure that, when outside actors do attempt to exert such influence, those attempts are rejected in clear terms. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, the failure to ensure independent hiring decisions, free from improper outside political influence, undermines university autonomy and academic freedom more broadly.