The Matter of Valentina Azarova and the University of Toronto
Doğan D. Akman
I studied social sciences in the 1960’s at the Université de Montréal and at the University of Pennsylvania and taught undergraduate sociology and criminology for six years. In those days, no one made a big fuss about academic freedom. The concept was well understood and was very rarely, if ever, invoked.
The reason for this was quite simple:Teachers taught in a manner becoming of an academic: without politicising the subject matter or injecting into the subject- matter personal political or ideological positions. And those were the days when Quebec separatism made the headlines.
And when on a controversial theoretical or empirical issue some students wrote essays or examination papers that argued for position contrary to that of the professor, they did not get penalised. In fact those who wrote and argued well and at times creatively, received the professors’ praise in front of the class and were awarded the high marks that came with it..
I have been told by some students, that if nowadays I were to walk into a faculty of social sciences; engage with some of the professors, and attend some classes on subjects that intersect with controversial current political issues, I would not recognise the place as my old home ground.
Nowadays, the phrase “academic freedom” seems to have become the last refuge of academic, to borrow a phrase, “purveyors of putrid poppycock” against Israel.
And I would describe the actions and threats of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) to be an abuse of the classical concept of academic freedom particularly since an indeterminate number of its members slant their courses along their ideological positions that have little to do with academic freedom and much to do with their respective authoritarian political outlook.
One of the targets of such academic ideological/political verbal warmongering which is quite fashionable these days is Israel.
The very notion of demanding the appointment Valentina Azarova as the Head of the International Human Rights Program of the Law Faculty of the University of Toronto, says more about the CAUT’s bizarre arrogance than anything else.
This arrogance did not deter the Dean from making and standing by his sober decision not to appoint her in the light of the incontrovertibly damning evidence that militated against her appointment.
As a retired lawyer, I verily believe that the Dean’s decision does honour to the reputation of the Faculty of Law and of the university .
First of all, Azarova is not and has never been a member of the Faculty of Law. In the premises, there can be no question of her being denied her academic freedom by the University of Toronto and/or by the Faculty of Law. She still has it and she is free take it to whatever university would be prepared to appoint her to an academic position.
Nor does the decision not to hire her breach her academic freedom as she is free to go on publishing her anti-Israel venom.
And this remains true, even if Azarova had been offered the position and the offer was subsequently withdrawn. It is perfectly lawful to withdraw an offer prior to its formal acceptance.
Second, there are no reasonable grounds to believe that prior to her being offered an appointment to the Faculty of Law,Azarova would voluntarily offer to publicly admit to and apologise for her irrational israel bashing ; repudiate it without any qualification or reservations and undertake not to relapse to her former nasty vice .
In the premises, the decision not to hire her stands on a sound proposition as, Dean Iacobucci is not prepared to appoint someone who was going to abuse her academic freedom in the service of her hostilities towards Israel or her hatred of the country. Then again would any other reasonable academic administrator person do otherwise?
Third, given the large number of students at the University of Toronto who are Jewish, her appointment and pronouncements would have likely violated the Canadian principles and values of diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion, especially now that the Province of Ontario has adopted the International Holocaust Remebrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism.
Fourth, it is hardly conceivable to appoint a person of Azarova’s rabid anti-Israeli stance to head a program of, all things, devoted to the subject of International Human Rights.
Finally, the person appointed to this position as to any academic position, must be one committed to empirical objectivity and a detached critical thinker with strong dispassionate analytical abilities able to present students complex situations in a clear and balanced manner.
Just as importantly, the person must also be open to constructive and creative thinking to seek out possible solutions and alternatives in addressing the human right issues raised in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on as single standard of values to assess the behaviour of the parties vis a vis one another .
Surely given Valentina Azarova’s track record on these issues to date, she is hardly the right person for job.
I suspect that the search committee which identified Azarova as the right candidate for the job, let down both Dean Iacobucci and the university, by failing to do a thorough job in vetting her background and failing to locate and read all her writings and publications, and bringing the venomous ones to the attention of the Dean. Alternatively, they may be supporters of her Israel bashing or indifferent to it and to the adverse impact it would have on their International Human Rights program.
Then again, her writings about Israel may have struck them as déjà vu: nowadays, nothing to write home about.
In so far as the accusations of political interference are concerned, surely no one expected the members of the Jewish community, the community itself and its organisations to sit on their hands and do nothing about an impending disaster.
Freedom in an open democratic society is not a one way street reserved to academics.
If the CAUT can argue about academic freedom, surely in this instance the members of the Jewish community, and its organisations enjoy the countervailing freedom, to let the Dean know about what he was getting into and why he ought to re-consider the matter in the light of the information provided to him.
And at the end of the day, who is to say that academic freedom carries a greater weight than the freedom exercised by the Jewish community and its organisations, or for that matter that may be exercised by any other community and its organisations facing the same or a similar problem, to intervene in the hope of preventing an ill-advised appointment that would not serve well the students of the program, the university and the communities at large.
No one can or should.