Law dean challenge

Written by  Posted Date: February 1, 2016
Illustration: Katy Lemay
Illustration: Katy Lemay
When Lee Stuesser, Lakehead University’s first law school dean, resigned last June after just two years on the job, he said resignations are “a personal matter” and declined to discuss his reasons. On his way out, the affable dean, who invited new students to his house for barbeques, would only say how grateful he was for the chance to cut the ribbon and open the doors of Lakehead law.

Stuesser isn’t the first inaugural dean to leave his post suddenly and with little explanation. When Thompson Rivers University’s founding law dean Chris Axworthy resigned only two years after helping launch the school, and calling his job “a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” students said the otherwise transparent administration was “extremely tight-lipped” about why the dean walked out. On at least one occasion, Axworthy had written to students about his frustrations with the administration and budgetary constraints.

At the University of New Brunswick, the departure of former dean Jeremy Levitt last year after just six months of deanship made headlines. It didn’t help that associate law dean Janet Austin also resigned her post in solidarity almost immediately after Levitt’s exit. Although it conducted an inquiry into the deans’ exits, UNB refused to discuss its findings with Canadian Lawyer. The law school has had three law deans in the last six years. “Law schools across Canada are finding challenges in the recruitment and retention of deans, and UNB has not been immune,” Natasha Ashfield, communications officer at UNB, told us.

The last year saw a number of Canadian law dean changeovers. Windsor University’s Faculty of Law dean Camille Cameron moved to become dean of Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, and University of Saskatchewan College of Law’s dean Sanjeev Anand resigned to become a provincial court judge. In the summer, the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law welcomed a new dean and the University of Manitoba was shopping for a new law dean at the end of 2015 as its current dean approached the end of her five-year term.

In early January, Lakehead University named Steusser’s successor, Angelique EagleWoman. The former law professor from  the University of Idaho College of Law will become the first indigenous law dean of a Canadian university. She is confident of the future, saying Lakehead’s law school is “destined for success” because it responds directly to the profession’s concerns about legal education through its experiential learning component.

“The fact of deans transitioning isn’t new; perhaps what’s unusual is the number [of transitions] that are happening simultaneously in Canada right now,” says Paul Paton, dean of the University of Alberta’s law school. “When you think of the number of law schools, it’s a pretty hefty proportion, and maybe that points to some institutional challenges that frankly make a deanship a real challenge.”

Others wondered if the clustered moves are anything more than a coincidence. “If you see a number of departures in any given short period of time, is it meaningful beyond the reasons for each of the particular departures?” says Kim Brooks, former Dalhousie law dean. “Law firms deal with this issue all the time. There will be a rush of associates leaving and you ask yourself if there is a cultural issue in terms of the experience the associates are having at the firm or is it that Suzanne needed to work at her family firm and John needed to relocate to Calgary?”

Traditionally, law deans served a four- or five-year term and went through a renewal process, says Paton, and many are long-serving. Ian Holloway is entering his sixth year and second term as law dean at the University of Calgary, he previously served as law dean at Western University. Queen’s University law dean Bill Flanagan was reappointed for a third term in 2013, and Mary Anne Bobinski left the law dean’s office at UBC last year after 12 years of service. But their stories are becoming more unusual as “part of the trend in both Canada and the U.S. has been one-term deans,” says Paton.

Jim Rosenblatt, dean emeritus and professor of law at Mississippi College School of Law in the United States, has been tracking the comings and goings of law deans south of the border.
“It is my conclusion that in the last three to four years the deans at American law schools have turned over at a faster rate than before,” says Rosenblatt. The average tenure of current serving deans in the U.S. is 4.32 years and the median current tenure is 3.11 years, according to Rosenblatt. He says current deans will, of course, add to that length of tenure as they continue to serve, but even his data for former deans of “more recent vintage” shows a shorter tenure than what some might assume. A database of 186 former deans shows the average tenure was 5.21 years and the median tenure was 4.78 years. In the face of growing challenges and rising pressure for law deans these days, some American law schools have taken to employing co-deans, says Rosenblatt.

Whereas for decades Canadian law schools outside of Quebec focused on homogenizing legal education, Holloway says a changing profession is forcing them to offer more diversified programs. Law deans now have the additional pressure of having to situate their schools somewhere on a spectrum that has, on one end, a deeply theoretical curriculum and, on the other end, integrated practical training as a significant component of education.

Students, and the profession they aspire to join, now expect more hands-on training in law school. “Legal education is in a period of transformation, challenge, and scrutiny,” says Douglas Judson, an articling student at McCarthy Tétrault LLP who founded an Ontario law students association while in law school. “It’s clear that the old chalk-and-talk, conveyor-belt degree is a thing of the past, and that law deans are called upon to develop strategies to make their JD programs more financially accessible and responsive to the job market, and to be thought leaders in not just the law but in what the supply chain of new lawyers ought to look like.”

High expectations from virtually all actors in the justice system is the mark of modern law deanship, and as the legal industry faces major and continuous disruptions, those chosen for the job are under pressure to become innovative in training the next generation of lawyers. There is a lot of vested interest in their success, but “success” means different things to the different parties who are counting on them. “You have your academic obligations to the provost or the president of the university, you have your faculty members, you have the judiciary, you have the legal profession — all of whom have a very vested interest in the law school,” says Paton. “So you’re managing multi-stakeholder constituencies of an order and complexity, as well as magnitude, that I think are different from other faculties.”

“It’s not an easy job at all,” Holloway agrees. “Everything you do is potentially the wrong thing in someone’s mind.”

Money matters

Law deans past and present say it’s at least “noteworthy” that a couple of their counterparts who had short-lived tenures were tasked with building the country’s newest law schools.
“There are some explanations for that, and I say that without having conversations with any of those deans who have left about why they left,” says Brooks. “But my guess would be that the challenges of being a dean would be more significant in the inaugural years of a law school than they are once the law school is more established. I have to imagine that it is a more complex set of circumstances that you’re negotiating than would be the case for a dean serving at a law school that’s been around for a hundred  years.”

Her remarks come as Ryerson University in Toronto mulls over the idea of launching what would be the newest Canadian law school. Already the home of the English Law Practice Program and the recently launched Legal Innovation Zone, a law school is “entirely consistent with Ryerson’s determination to lead,” according to former attorney general Chris Bentley, the executive director of Ryerson’s LPP.

But with no senior alumni to turn to for donations and without an established reputation to rely on, deans at newer law schools carry greater resource-related pressures. “I think it can be surprising how expensive a law school is,” says Brooks. “There’s sort of word on the street that a law school can be self-sustaining and that the tuition levels can now be set high enough that it doesn’t actually require much of an infusion of cash from the rest [of the] university to be able to run. I think universities quickly and unexpectedly find that that’s not true.”

But the changing expectations for the role of the law dean are being felt across the board, and the issue of resources is hardly unique to new institutions. Immediately after he was appointed as law dean at the University of Alberta, Paton says he was thrust into a very public discussion on resources. “I was working with the students to successfully secure support for a 60-per-cent tuition increase,” he says. “The proposal went forward and what I did here was engage in a dialogue and build a coalition with students, with law firms, with individual lawyers, with alumni, with the judiciary, and there was a lot of overt opposition. It’s certainly not easy.”

As 2015 came to a close, University of Toronto law student newspaper Ultra Vires reported that dean Ed Iacobucci is planning to recommend increasing tuition by five per cent this year. Fees for the 2015-16 academic year topped $33,000. At a council meeting, “Iacobucci said that, despite tuition revenue, the faculty regularly spends more money than it brings in,” the paper reported. In an e-mail to Canadian Lawyer, Alexis Archbold, U of T’s assistant law dean, said all Ontario law schools increase their tuitions each year.

But annual increases are something Lorne Sossin, dean of Osgoode Hall Law School, says will be “unsustainable” in the long run. “To say to students or government that we intend to charge more next year for the exact same program we offered this year is in my view unsustainable. This puts pressure on all deans whether at big or small law schools.”

To be sure, finding new sources of funds for their law school has always been part of the job description for law deans, but that role is now “different and pronounced” as expectations change, according to Paton. Since he joined U of A, Paton says he has doubled the school’s career services capacity and arranged on-site psychological counselling and referral services.
“These are the sort of things we didn’t have when I was going through law school that students now are looking for,” he says.

The make-or-break power of faculty

Increasingly, law deans cannot be everything to all parts of the legal community, but without the support of their faculty, they could flounder very quickly.

Alice Woolley, assistant dean, academic, and a professor at Calgary’s law school, puts it like this: “A dean who can’t generate resources has a problem. The faculty can’t use resources to create growth, opportunity, or change. And the dean can’t hire or fire people to create growth, opportunity, or change — the former would require resources (which are unavailable) and the latter isn’t possible because of tenure. So all the dean has in his or her arsenal is personal relationships with faculty, which requires interpersonal skills — empathetic relationships with faculty, working with [or] around more challenging personalities, being willing to consult but also being able to advance progress. Some deans have that, but some don’t,” wrote Woolley in an e-mail to Canadian Lawyer.

On the flipside, Woolley says some faculties are more willing to respond to the efforts a dean makes than others.

In addition, most major decisions in a law school have to go through a faculty council, which means the majority of the dean’s colleagues have to agree with the decision. A dean who wants faculty members to take up particular responsibilities would have to persuade them to do so, Brooks says. “You don’t have extra pay to get people to do harder jobs. There isn’t, unlike most places anyway, a formal review process that results in people feeling like they need to pick up the pieces in ways that they might if you were working in a kind of corporate or private setting. That just means the relationship between the dean and faculty members and staff members becomes all the more important.”

When in March last year, Levitt walked abruptly out the door at UNB, quickly followed by the resignation of the school’s associate dean, an image emerged of a faculty that was, at least from the outside, divided. “Not everyone is comfortable with the change that I represent,” Levitt told the The Daily Gleaner, Fredericton’s local newspaper, at the time.

Eben Otuteye, a professor of finance at UNB, has a daughter who attends the law school and friends who are part of the faculty. The way Otuteye sees it, Levitt walked into a dysfunctional faculty that formed itself into different cliques. “There’s hardly any sense of collegiality among them. You either belong to this clique [or another] and that’s the limit of your collegial fair,” says Otuteye.

The dean turnover at UNB “should tell you something,” he adds. “The deans are changing and the relationship is not changing. I would say we should look at the faculty and stop pointing at the deans. You’re wasting your time looking at the deans, who are different, instead of looking at the faculty, who are the same. It’s a graveyard for deans; so look at the graveyard instead of the victims.”

Levitt did not respond to a request for an interview for this article but UNB says current law dean John Williamson has had “a long and successful association” with the law school, having served in the past as interim dean, acting dean, and associate dean. He was first appointed as an associate professor at the university in 1974.

UNB says it’s impossible to say why its own law school or others across the country are having a tough time recruiting and retaining deans, but it recognizes “there are challenges within universities today that can make it tough for any dean in any faculty, including fiscal restraint, navigating unionized environments, and responding to changes within higher education generally.”

While tough for anybody, some say law deanship is harder for those who are considered “outsiders” to the faculty they’re joining. As a relatively young, African-American, Jewish dean who hailed from Florida, Levitt likely faced an uphill battle at UNB, says Otuteye. Racism “is quite evident when you live here. This place is not any different from anywhere else in North America — there’s a lot of racism, especially racism in academia. It has been documented in several places and UNB has not distinguished itself from that group in any way.”

Another observer, a faculty member at a different law school who would only comment anonymously, says there’s no doubt Levitt was met with “reflexive closed-mindedness” at UNB, but Levitt also didn’t have the people skills to help his case. The resistance to his ideas meant he needed an exceptional level of emotional intelligence, which he didn’t have, according to the professor. “He had some good ideas, but he was just kind of a blustery guy who couldn’t read people around him. He made a bunch of silly mistakes that put people off from the beginning.”

One of the biggest challenges for law schools remains becoming a place where every “outsider” feels at home, says Sossin, who acknowledges the law deans’ table doesn’t look like or reflect the students they serve. But Sossin says how a law dean ended up at a particular school is also important in how welcome he or she would be.

If the decanal search process was collegial and widely supported, deans are more likely to get off on a better footing than if they came through a contentious process fraught with division, notes Sossin. Some universities conduct a very public and transparent search process for deans, at times allowing a short list of candidates to give talks on their priorities. In other cases, the process is confidential and no one knows much about the incoming dean until there has been a decision. “I think it’s much easier in that first transparent kind of process to be an incoming dean where you’ve made clear to everyone in open settings what your priorities are and what you want to consult on and learn from colleagues about,” says Sossin.

According to Brooks, a law dean doesn’t necessarily have to win the hearts of faculty members, but there’s no question that the faculty needs to have confidence in the dean’s decisions and actions. “You don’t have to like the dean, often you don’t agree with the dean, but you have to respect and trust their judgment calls in order for the relationship to work,” she says.

The right skill sets

Law deans are at once expected to inspire pupils, build and bridge relationships, advance research, make public policy impact, and convince the bar and government of the importance of investment in law schools. Yet, there is hardly a consensus on the kind of background that makes for a successful law dean. Being a good faculty member doesn’t necessarily train you to be a good dean, because, says Paton, as faculty “you’re not focused on running an operation.”

But having an academic background is still important, and part of the challenge is finding a dean who embraces the role of an administrator, a role most academics don’t aspire to. “Most people who become academics do not do so because they want to be academic administrators. They want to publish and teach. Yet you need deans from the academic ranks, or with a true affinity for the academic mission, because you need a dean who knows about and cares about writing and teaching,” says Woolley. “So finding someone who is passionate about legal academia — writing and teaching — but who doesn’t [himself] or herself want primarily to be a legal academic is a challenge.”

Rarely do Canadian universities consider law deans who come directly from law practice, and according to Holloway, it may be time to rethink that approach. “Why is it that we have not done more to even look at different kinds of candidates?” he asks, adding the legal academy should at least be open to the idea. American law schools have hired deans from private practice and government and the results have been mixed, he says. “Some deans from practice have been very successful; others have been miserable failures.” Still, he says the idea is worth exploring.

Brooks says a law dean could come with all kinds of great experiences and still suffer on the job. That’s why when colleagues across Canada call her because they’re considering applying for deanship, Brooks tell them their interests should align with what the school needs. That’s pivotal because when, at times, friction arises between the dean and faculty or the dean and the university’s administration, it may have nothing to do with the dean, Brooks says. “They might have been a very talented relationship builder, but it just turned out what the university needed was a strong fundraiser or a fabulous research builder,” she says. “Sometimes, we think people in a particular role can be all things to all people, but it’s not possible to be everything you’d want a dean to be.”

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Yamri Taddese

Yamri Taddese is staff writer for Canadian Lawyer and Law Times. She began her career with Carswell Media in 2012 and has also worked for the Toronto Star, Global Television, Berhan Television, and the Toronto Observer. Yamri can be reached at yamri.taddese@thomsonreuters.com.

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