The Censure of the University of Toronto as a Struggle Over Higher Education

Posted October 1, 2021
By Deborah Cowen

CO-WRITTEN BY MELANIE NEWTONDENISE REAUME & ALISSA TROTZ 

A year ago, a major hiring scandal erupted at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto. The scandal broke after the former Law Dean decided not to proceed with the hiring of Dr. Valentina Azarova to direct its International Human Rights Program after a donor and sitting judge objected to her work on Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories.

Four months ago, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) placed the University of Toronto under an unprecedented censure. CAUT represents 72,000 academic staff in Canada, and is committed to the defense of academic freedom which it concluded had been violated by the university’s actions in this case. CAUT censure is rare - this was one of only a handful of times it's been invoked in the organization’s 70 year history. In this case CAUT member associations voted 79-0 to censure. The UofT administration was intransigent, repeatedly asserting that censure was unwarranted, as if the size of an endowment could make arrogant assertions true.

On September 17, the university administration finally, again, offered the position to Dr. Azarova - a feat that senior administrators long insisted was impossible. Offering the position to Azarova is a key condition for the lifting of the CAUT censure. 

Many of us have been at the University of Toronto for decades and recall no prior event where the administration has so clearly responded to pressure to reverse a bad decision. 

Months of local and international pressure had a decisive impact in this extraordinary outcome. More than 1,300 leading international scholars pledged support for the censure and were joined by dozens of departments, unions and student groups on campus. Support for the censure came from Black intellectuals and Indigenous scholarsJewish facultyPalestinian studentsArab and Muslim lawyers, and from many many organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The high stakes of the scandal, and the resonance with global events and trends at universities around the world, catalyzed this ‘boundless’ support.

At stake in this scandal is not simply one person (Azarova), or one program (IHRP), or one faculty (Law), or even one university (Toronto). This is a wider struggle over who has the right to define what we know, who can access the halls of higher learning, and whose perspectives and experiences shape future generations. 

At stake is a struggle between two incompatible models of the university. One vision puts the future of higher learning in the hands of the highest bidder. It offers a campus run by risk management consultants, ‘advancement’ executives and a growing army of administrators.

The campaign to support the censure - CensureUofT - embodied a different vision of the university. It refused the power of donor intervention to define the limits of scholarship and rejected the Palestine exception to human rights. Here, the pursuit of knowledge is anchored in commitments to justice and in the many communities on campus, in the city, around the world that give our institution its strength. 

CensureUofT was inspired by figures like Bora Laskin, who helped to create CAUT 70 years ago to protect against antisemitism and other forms of systemic discrimination, and by many others who have faced related injustices in educational sectors, including Javier Davila, Ritika GoelSteven Salaita, and Nikole Hannah-Jones

To see our employer walk back a decision it claimed was irreversible is an important victory, yet it is also bittersweet. The administration failed to silence faculty and students in their fight for accountability and justice. They failed to silence the conversation about Palestine. They failed to undermine academic freedom and its national champion, CAUT. But so far, the administration has also failed to address the deeper issues that created the scandal. 

The administration has refused to acknowledge systemic threats to academic freedom - including through the operation of the Palestine exception; it has downplayed the problem of donor intervention; and has ignored calls for better collegial governance practices and administrative accountability. 

It is thus disappointing but unsurprising that Dr. Azarova decided not to accept the renewed offer of employment at UofT. This was a position that she had already accepted last summer and was eager to start. But who among us could fail to understand why she, like Nikole Hannah-Jones, would ultimately decline after the intervening scandal? 

The behaviour of the administration understandably undermines confidence in UofT as a welcoming place to undertake serious work on human rights and their violations. The administration’s conduct leaves question marks about their commitment to protecting this work from donor influence. The absence of a formal apology, accountability, or confidence that significant change is in the works is shameful and worrying. In this context, the lack of a successful search for Director of the program, a failure that sits directly on the table of the University of Toronto administration, has left the future of the IHRP program in doubt.

All this means that while the censure is lifted, the work must continue. We celebrate the symphony of voices that together spoke up for academic freedom and collegial governance, and stood against the Palestine exception, while we commit to continue practicing and building that other future for higher learning. Join us.