Tri-Campus History Department Statement on the CAUT Censure of UofT

June 14, 2021 by Amy Ratelle

On April 22, 2021, CAUT council voted unanimously (with one abstention) to censure the University of Toronto for violating academic freedom in the hiring process for the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program Director.  The University’s commissioned review, by the Hon. Thomas Cromwell (retired justice of the Supreme Court of Canada), found that a third party organization, the Council on Israel Jewish Affairs (CIJA), prompted a former director of its board, UofT alum, and Federal Tax Court Judge David Spiro, to make inquiries about the candidate on which the selection committee unanimously agreed, Dr. Valentina Azarova. Cromwell offers a detailed narrative of what transpired, while making inferences and conclusions that remain points of contention. Cromwell concluded that Judge Spiro did not attempt to influence the hiring process of Dr. Azarova, but was rather sharing information with the University as a supportive alum. Moreover, he found that then-Dean of the Faculty of Law, Edward Iacobucci, did not violate academic freedom by succumbing to external, donor interference. CAUT reviewed the Cromwell report and related materials, and found Cromwell’s conclusions implausible. As David Robinson, executive director of the CAUT explained, “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 facts of the case have been widely reported and the story has reached international audiences. The Faculty of Law has since restarted its application process for the IHRP director; Dr. Azarova is free to reapply if she so wishes. 

Collegial Governance and Academic Freedom

Collegial governance in the University is a sine qua non of academic freedom. The undisputed failures in collegial governance at the Faculty of Law have been compounded by the stances of those in the President’s and Provost’s office in the face of otherwise reasonable inquiries and demands for due diligence.  Moreover, the recent announcement from the Faculty of Law resuming the IHRP search fails to redress the initial breach of collegial governance that subverted a duly diligent search committee process and the advanced negotiations that were already underway.

Philanthropy and Academic Freedom

The Cromwell Report found evidence of overt third-party efforts to subvert the IHRP selection process, which in turn threatens the integrity of our academic mission. Advanced research means very little without the rights of freedom of speech, academic freedom, and freedom of research, especially in those cases where research and pedagogy “raise deeply disturbing questions and provocative challenges to the cherished beliefs of society at large and of the university itself.”

History, Method, Governance

The Cromwell report’s methodological flaws limit its reliability as a fair and accurate account of what transpired. Compounding that unreliability is the fact that Cromwell gave a keynote address to a CIJA-sponsored conference without any disclosure or explanation from him or the UofT administration. Historical methods of course rely on primary sources; but primary sources speak through the mouth of the historian as narrator. Accounting for the narrator’s positionality and subjective bias is no less a part of the historian’s discipline and craft than sifting through primary source materials. 

Exceptions to Academic Freedom

The incidents at the Faculty of Law and the CAUT censure have brought to the surface considerations of a Palestine exception to academic freedom—an exception that lay beneath the surface of this scandal.  Cromwell’s report makes clear that third parties targeted Azarova because her published scholarship is critical of Israel’s ongoing military occupation.  Telling the history of settler societies comes with painful politics. But as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has taught us, painful politics cannot preclude an honest accounting of the past or the present, as we imagine new futures. The censure reminds us that we must be ever vigilant across the University to avoid systemically enabling certain exceptions to academic freedom, whether due to institutional design or traditional curricular commitments.

These concerns are part of our reality as we continue to do our job at the UofT.  But fulfilling our obligations to our students and university does not mean that things will be “business as usual”. As long as the censure continues, the Tri-Campus Department of History commits to the following:

  1. The Department will not host events with outside, non-UofT speakers, at any of the three campuses. 
  2. The Department will not advertise UofT events featuring outside, non-UofT speakers.
  3. Public-facing programming organized by the Department will center the times, places, and people that are too often cast as exceptions to academic freedom.
  4. The Department will continue to support, mentor, and advocate for, and with, graduate students, while working to ensure their advancement in their program continues. Our graduate students are already strained under the weight of a demanding academic program, economic challenges to their wellbeing, and pandemic conditions that limit their capacity to train as they hoped.  Censure now threatens to isolate them from a global academic community despite UofT’s otherwise stellar global reputation, which attracted many of them to our program. We want to emphasize that the object of the censure is the administration—not the students, faculty or staff. To that end, external dissertation examiners do not violate the censure by supporting the matriculation of our graduate students.
  5. An ad hoc Censure Committee will be established to offer guidance to faculty and graduate students concerned with the evolving implications of censure on their work at the University.  To submit your queries to the committee please email: