Tension marks TRU law dean’s exit

Tension marks TRU law dean’s exit
TRU’s founding law dean Chris Axworthy has quit his job less than two years after the school opened its doors.
In an unexpected move, the dean at Thompson Rivers University Faculty of Law has resigned.

Chris Axworthy was the founding dean of the law school, which opened its doors in September 2011. In an interview with 4Students for the fall 2011 issue, Axworthy seemed excited to lead Canada’s first new law school in more than 30 years. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “Initially we need to do what we can to establish ourselves as a top-notch law school.”

The announcement of his departure was released July 15, but law students weren’t informed of the news until two days later when Anne Pappas, former founding assistant dean who has now been appointed interim dean, sent an e-mail.

Chris Albinati, who is entering his third year at TRU’s law school in the fall, says the e-mail was “extremely tight-lipped,” which is unusual since the faculty tends to be quite open with students.

The university has provided no explanation for Axworthy’s resignation. When contacted by 4Students, TRU’s vice president advancement Christopher Seguin said, “It’s a personnel issue that we won’t be commenting on.”

Jay Michi, who is also going into third year at the law school, says the lack of information has led students to develop their own theories.

There are “so many rumours, so much speculation,” he says. “If anything, that is part of the problem. If the faculty is not able to communicate to students what the university’s position is and the university isn’t doing it, students are left to speculate.”

As the inaugural president of the Society of Law Students, Michi worked closely with Axworthy and Pappas. When asked for his view on Axworthy’s resignation, he says: “There seems to be a general theory that it was related to a divergence of opinion between dean Axworthy and some university administration officials over the direction of the law school, resource allocation, [and] timelines.”

In a letter to students last October, Axworthy expressed some of his frustration with the university’s administration.

“While, in its dealings with university, the faculty [of law] has experienced some successes, the culture, the collective agreements and the policies, regulations and practices in place in the university have presented significant challenges,” he wrote.

He explained Pappas’ role would be realigned to include career services duties to try to accommodate students’ needs.

“The faculty has been trying to appoint a career services officer for a full year. [Thompson Rivers University Faculty Association] insisted that the position be a TRUFA position. This would not have met the needs of the faculty of law and neither TRUFA nor the university administration was able to see their way clear to addressing the needs of the faculty. So the faculty of law was left with no choice,” wrote Axworthy.

He also said the faculty faced challenges in hiring administrative staff due to budgetary constraints.

As a member of TRU’s senate, Albinati says he experienced some of the tension between the university’s administration and the faculty of law first-hand. He says the law school is significantly constrained by the university in terms of its ability to grow.

He also echoes comments made by TRU chancellor Wally Oppal to CBC News that law schools need to be treated uniquely within an institution.

“If the university is not open to that reality — which from what I experienced is the case — then the law school is not going to be able to achieve the mandate that its setting for itself,” says Albinati.

The university “need[s] to open up their channels of communication with the students,” he says. “The fact that the students were not even informed of the announcement and then were not notified afterwards speaks volumes about just how much they’re thinking about us in terms of their decisions and their planning.”

Michi says it’s crucial for law students to be involved in the decision-making at the university.

“[S]tudents’ input has to be central to the decisions that are made, and students can’t be the second or third group of people to hear about major things like a dean’s resignation,” he says.

“If the faculty and the administration are not taking the students’ concerns seriously and we’re not part of decision-making processes, then we just get pushed to the back,” he adds.

Seguin says the search for a new dean will begin very soon and law students and faculty will be included in the search committee.

Also of note, former dean of arts Michael Mehta and former dean of nursing Barbara Paterson stepped down from their positions at TRU in March. The university did not provide any reasons for their departures either.

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