The Astronomy and Space Exploration Society is raising awareness and adjusting its programming to support an advocacy campaign to restrict donor influence on academic hiring decisions at the University of Toronto.
In 2020, the University of Toronto’s law school presented an offer to Valentina Azarova, a human rights lawyer in Germany, to serve as director of the university’s International Human Rights Program. Azarova accepted the offer in the August of that year. But the dean of the law school at the time, Edward Iacobucci, rescinded the hiring offer, shortly following a call from a major donor to the school, David E. Spiro, who allegedly suggested that hiring Azarova would damage the university’s reputation due to her academic work on the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
In response to the withdrawn hiring offer, the faculty at the University of Toronto who formed the hiring committee—beginning with Audrey Macklin, law professor and the committee’s chair—resigned from their posts. Human rights groups, including the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have since publicly spoken out against the law school’s course of action. These events have made headlines in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and the New Yorker.
The University of Toronto has since released a report that concludes, from a legal perspective, that it is not certain that the hiring decision was reversed due to donor influence. However, a blow-by-blow account by Higher Education Strategy Associates, a Toronto consultancy, concludes that even with this benefit of the doubt, the official reason for reversing the decision remains “flimsy.”
In April 2021, the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) Council voted in a rarely-used motion to censure the University of Toronto, following an investigation. The move asked the members of the universities that it represents to embargo the University of Toronto, which includes the denial of invitations to speak at the university.
𝗪𝗵𝗮𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝘀 𝗺𝗲𝗮𝗻𝘀 𝗳𝗼𝗿 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗔𝗦𝗫: The ASX supports the CAUT’s move to curtail the influence of donors on the hiring of academic faculty at the University of Toronto.
The ASX is moving to raise awareness of the issue with this letter, hold all events off-campus (including University of Toronto-affiliated Zoom accounts), and avoid inviting speakers not affiliated with the University of Toronto at present. The ASX will also inform all potential speakers about the censure. These decisions are grounded on guidance from the CAUT, the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the ASX’s independent research. While supporting this campaign, the ASX remains committed to running the highest-quality events in astronomy outreach and education for the public.
We believe that support for this campaign is in the best long-term interest of the community that attends ASX events, in support of freedom in academic research at the university. The ASX will be back with an update on the CAUT campaign in October, to present potential changes or implications for the ASX’s annual Symposium. Thank you for your consideration of this letter.