The decision of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) executive on April 22, 2021, to censure the University of Toronto (U of T) for its infringement on “academic freedom” should be of concern for all universities. CAUT represents professors, librarians, researchers, and other academics at Canadian universities, most of which are publicly funded institutions. CAUT censure means asking “CAUT members (i) not to accept appointments at a censured institution; (ii) not to accept invitations to speak or participate in academic conferences there; (iii) not to accept any distinction or honour that may be offered by that institution.” After CAUT’s censure, a former Governor General of Canada immediately canceled her lectures at the U of T. The other consequences suffered by the U of T have not yet been fully documented.
What was the crime that the University of Toronto committed to deserve this censure? Allegedly, the law school withdrew an offer of employment to an applicant, an action that may have been in response to outside interference by a donor to the university. Justice Thomas Cromwell, formerly of the Supreme Court of Canada, reviewed the matter. He completed a detailed investigation of the case and filed an extensive report. It is now apparent that the candidate did not fulfil the prespecified requirements for the position: (i) The candidate was not qualified to practice law in Ontario or any other province in Canada; (ii) the candidate could not fulfil the job’s requirement of starting work at the end of September 2021; (iii) and the candidate did not wish to be a full-time resident in Toronto to lead the department, but rather wished to be given extended time (many months) each summer in Europe. In addition, the candidate sought an academic “type” appointment for an administrative position.
Justice Cromwell also found that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the outside donor was the main reason why the position was not offered to the candidate and negotiations of employment were terminated. The outside donor, a judge, was also “cleared” of the accusation of interference by another judicial panel.
The challenge for the U of T was to quickly bring into Canada a noncitizen without permanent residency or a work permit, rather than a Canadian who was available and could have started work at the designated time. This challenge ultimately led to action, by the dean, not to offer the position to the candidate
An evaluation of the candidate’s essays, blogs, and statements (such as advocacy regarding “how law can be brought to operate in disruptive and subversive ways”) raises serious concerns about how the candidate would equitably administer the school’s International Human Rights Program.
With this information the leadership of CAUT, the teachers of Canadian youth at Canadian universities, voted that the U of T should be condemned for violation of academic freedom. Whose academic freedom did the U of T violate? It could not have been the candidate, as the candidate had not yet been hired, was not an academic at a Canadian university, and was not being offered an academic position. Was it the academic freedom of the search committee who chose the candidate? This does not appear reasonable because, firstly, they exercised their freedom to select their preferred candidate, even though they “broke the rules” of putting forward a candidate who was not truly eligible for the position. Secondly, all search committees make recommendations to the dean, who ultimately makes the decision on hiring. It is noteworthy that the Canadian Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, a group of senior Canadian university academics, did not offer an opinion that the U of T violated academic freedom.
The CAUT executive disregarded Justice Cromwell’s investigation and report, instead acting to censure the University of Toronto. While their action may remind us of the famous line “my mind is made up—don’t confuse me with facts,” it should cause us to examine the leadership amongst university faculty. We should ask whether organizations such as CAUT, which pressure universities, are themselves agents to limit academic freedom or have a political bias, such as sympathy with the controversial views of the candidate under consideration, rather than an academic agenda.
Does CAUT leadership’s position reflect that of the majority of teachers at Canadian universities? Have university academics become so immersed in their careers that they no longer wish to be involved in actions at a national level, allowing leadership to act on their own biases and prejudices? Has the political pressure of CAUT limited the options of the new dean of law at the U of T to make it politically impossible to select anyone other than the candidate who led to the controversy? Most importantly, are the leaders of university teachers being guided by rational dialogue and evidence so that they help young generations learn, or have they bought into a dogma that is the antithesis of the search for truth? CAUT’s censure of the University of Toronto helps us answer these questions. It does not inspire confidence in the future of Canadian higher education.
This article was written by a Canadian university professor who wishes to remain anonymous.