Feldthusen’s departure signals culture shift at U of O

A culture shift is on the horizon for the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law with the impending departure of its common law dean. In July, Bruce Feldthusen will leave his post of dean after more than a decade.

No stranger to controversy, some say it’s time for Feldthusen to move on. But what will this mean for the future of Canada’s largest law school?

Two candidates have been shortlisted for the job, including Nathalie des Rosiers, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a professor in U of O’s civil law section. She was also the civil law dean from 2004 to 2008. The other candidate, McGill University Faculty of Law associate professor David Lametti, has an extensive background in technology law.

Both represent areas the faculty has chosen to focus on — des Rosiers with her social justice background and Lametti with his knowledge of technology law.

Most importantly, the new dean will have a crucial role to play in deepening U of O’s strengths, says one faculty member.

“I’m looking for someone who is passionate about bringing Ottawa U to its full potential, someone who is clear-eyed about the challenges . . . and someone who is ready to take on what is clearly going to be a challenging time,” says law professor Carissima Mathen.

In a recent interview with the law school’s student newspaper Inter Pares, Feldthusen acknowledged the new dean will face a number of hurdles, including what he predicts will be a financial crisis in universities in the next two years, pressure on law schools to offer more experiential learning programs, and the effects of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s changes to Ontario’s licensing process that take effect in 2014.

When dealing with these issues, communication will play a key role, says Mathen.

“One of the most important things that a dean can do is to ensure that lines of communication remain open and to ensure that there’s appropriate and regular opportunities to communicate in broader ways about issues that are important to both the faculty and students,” she says.

Over the years, Feldthusen has been criticized for his communication skills and accessibility.

“Being present in the student body is really important, [being] accessible, just having a presence,” says second-year law student Monica Russell. Feldthusen tells students they can knock on his office door anytime, she says, but “I think a lot of people are intimidated by him and don’t see him as very approachable.”

In an effort to dispel this criticism, Feldthusen created a Twitter account and held a Q & A session last year where students were able to submit questions and he selected various questions to respond to. Unfortunately, not everyone was satisfied.

“I don’t think that’s how you should be addressing students’ concerns,” says Russell, adding students should feel comfortable enough to approach the dean with questions or problems they’re having.

Feldthusen has been known to be highly critical himself. For example, in his interview with Inter Pares, he blames U of O law students for bringing down the law school and even takes a stab at another law school.

“I don’t think there’s a law school in the province where the students run the school down in public like [U of O], and every time they do that, they just drop your chances of getting a job. It’s just part of the culture here. The public criticism that Ottawa U students make about their legal education, I think, is dramatically different,” he said.

“I’ve been in other law schools, I was at Western. Western was a joke compared to the quality of education you get here, but every one of them will jump up and down in their little crew cut outfit and say how wonderful Western is. Though it’s probably very few people here, with modern communication, the impact is larger. Every time someone is out of control like that it damages everybody else terribly.”

Russell says Feldthusen’s comments were inappropriate and unprofessional. “Someone who is going to represent our law school [should] be really passionate about ours but not negative about other ones,” she says.

“It’s a profession that we’re all going to be entering, we’re all going to be working as colleagues. I don’t think that the role model or the person that represents us should set that bad taste up for the rest of the public or for its own student body,” she adds.

In other recent news, Feldthusen was lambasted for the way he handled a grievance filed by a law student regarding a collective agreement for student research assistants, in which he sent an e-mail to the student body that some students described as “distasteful” with an attempt at intimidation.

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