Canada: Alleged influence by judge on U of T hiring process | Update

LRWC welcomes news that the University of Toronto (U of T) Faculty of Law announced in June 2021 that it has reopened a competition to hire a director of its International Human Rights Program (IHRP) after months of controversy over allegations of improper external pressure and interference in the recruitment process for a Director of the IHRP.  The  Faculty of Law has indicated “it has a ‘preferred candidate’ in mind for the job based on last year’s search… but that legally it must open the job up to other applicants.”  The Dean of the U of T Law school, now Dean Jutta Brunnée is quoted as stating that the University of Toronto “in a different place now,” is now able to hire a foreign candidate, that political views “don’t have a place in hiring considerations” and that the university will remain “an institution where rigorous political academic debate can take place.”

In September 2020, the Dean of the Law School, then Edward M. Iacobucci, was alleged to have interfered in the U of T’s hiring committee’s summer 2020 decision to hire international human rights scholar Dr. Valentina Azarova after a verbal offer and acceptance were made, and after both the University and Dr. Azarova had taken steps to implement the agreement. A donor to the University, Federal Court Judge David Spiro, allegedly expressed concern to the Dean about Dr. Azarova’s research on international human rights and international humanitarian law related to Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territories.

LRWC wrote a letter in October 2020 raising concern that, if the allegations were true, their were concerns about violation of international human rights law and standards including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the  UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, and the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, all of which affirm freedom of expression. LRWC called for an independent investigation.

In December 2020, U of T appointed former Supreme Court of Canada Justice Thomas Cromwell to conduct a review of the hiring process. Justice Cromwell found  in March 2021 that:

…having reviewed all of the relevant facts as fully as I can, I would not draw the inference that external influence played any role in the decision to discontinue the recruitment of the Preferred Candidate. The inference that such influence played a role in that decision is the basis of the concern about academic freedom but, as I see it, that inference is not justified.

Justice Cromwell’s report was criticized by a number of human rights scholars and practitioners. In April 2021, the Council of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) censured the U of T after its own investigation concluded “that the decision to cancel Dr. Valentina Azarova’s hiring was politically motivated, and as such constitutes a serious breach of widely recognized principles of academic freedom.” The censure called on academics not to accept appointments or speaking engagements at the institution until satisfactory changes are made.

Multiple complaints to the Canadian Judicial Council (CDC) in 2020 in resulted in a 21 May 2021 by a Review Panel decision finding that:

Justice Spiro was voicing his concerns about the potential impact of the appointment and associated controversy on the University and the Faculty, as opposed to actively campaigning or lobbying against the appointment. Part of Justice Spiro’s concern was whether the University had done its due diligence in its selection process.

The Review panel concluded that it was “a serious error for Justice Spiro to discuss the appointment of the Director of IHRP, one that he regrets and one from which he states he has learned” but that the mistakes “were not serious enough to warrant a recommendation for his removal from office.” On 23 June 2021, six complainants filed an application to the Federal Court seeking judicial review of the CDC’s decision to close the complaint Justice Spiro.

LRWC is continuing to monitor this situation.