The toll of the turmoil at UNB law

It is a trying time to be a law student at the University of New Brunswick.

I must state however that these are my opinions and thoughts only. There has been much debate at UNB about who is best suited to represent the interests of law students. I do not purport to represent any. While I know my positions strike a chord with some fellow UNB law students at this most unusual time, others will object strongly to the subsequent paragraphs. They either do not see the recent issues at Ludlow Hall in the same light or, in an effort to protect the school’s reputation, prefer not to amplify the school’s problems beyond the media attention already garnered.

Recent facts undoubtedly signal a clear problem even without any exaggeration by the news media. Three professors are on full or partial leave. Scant details have been provided to students why. Dean Jeremy Levitt is on leave after just five months on the job and his conduct is now under investigation following accusations of harassment. The associate dean has resigned her post and so has the scholar-in-residence, former Supreme Court of Canada justice Gérard La Forest. It’s serious.

Everyone in this mess purports to be acting in the “best interests of the students.” The declaration rings vividly familiar to the oft-repeated justifications of last year’s UNB professorial strike, which dragged on for three weeks, displacing students. It fascinates and irritates many students, including this writer, that when things come off the rails at the university, “coming together in the best interests of the students” is a line so often used to advance a party’s agenda.

Further noteworthy is that the turmoil is not entirely shocking to students who have been operating under a distinctly different tenor at Ludlow Hall since there were leaves on the trees. As one professor reportedly announced before an upper-year class earlier this semester, an “epic battle between faculty and the dean” has been unfolding.

No kidding. The oil-and-water relationship between administration and the law faculty has been the school’s worst-kept secret. From reported yelling matches between the dean and professors in public spaces at Ludlow Hall to tense showdowns during faculty council meetings, students have not been shielded from the tension.

With an independent investigation into the complaints against the dean and in an absence of details, questions and speculation are swirling feverishly around the student lounge. Was the dean overzealous in advancing his agenda? Or was his aggressive style simply misunderstood? Do we have an insubordinate faculty resistant to leadership and overly empowered by last year’s strike to put its foot down? Or are the professors who subscribe to a “tried and tested” approach to legal education delivery also misunderstood? Students are not certain.

Some very serious questions have also surfaced through the news media suggesting the possibility of gender bias and racism at the law school. These reports are deeply, deeply troubling speculations for students to reconcile; especially those students who have formed bonds with both the dean and professors.

Some sympathize with the dean. Others sympathize with the professors. Many of us are torn and do not know what to think.

Furthermore, many of us observe that the turmoil could and should be handled differently.

While the investigation is unfolding, the university has been cranking out key messages to contain the crisis but which further compound the exasperation of students.

The law school has been described as the “crown jewel of the university.” We have also been told the school’s “reputation is intact.” And my personal favourite is that the law school is operating “business as usual.” While I understand the motivation behind these sound bites — to allay students and stakeholders — they are troubling for various reasons.

If the law school is indeed UNB’s “crown jewel” then why wasn’t the senior leadership in Douglas Hall keeping tabs on the affairs up the hill? It seemed to come as news to the administration that courses were being scrapped, marking of exams and assignments were extraordinarily delayed without explanation, and more and more lectures are curiously being cancelled.

While I appreciate that micro-management practices are not preferred, recent events seem to signal it’s time to bear down hard on the management of UNB’s “crown jewel.”

As a sign of leadership and priority, I suggest Dr. Tony Secco, UNB’s vice president (academic) would be smart to immediately assume the duties of dean on an interim basis. On the job, he should make it a priority to become innately familiar with the distinct nature of a place that has been a revolving door of deans in recent years and operates like an arm’s-length institution from the university at large. Even if the dean returns, Secco should function as an in-house supervisor of the faculty similar to the function of a receiver in a commercial situation of a going-concern business.

The idea is not that far fetched. Upon her swearing in as premier of Ontario in 2013, Kathleen Wynne also took on the role of agriculture minister given the Liberals’ poor showing in rural ridings in the last election. The double duty signalled to the party and to farmers that she meant business.

Assertions that the school’s reputation remains strong and intact amid the cloud of controversy are on equally soft footing. I am not suggesting the reputation has changed for better or for worse in recent weeks because quite simply, there is no substantial evidence. In place of that, however, I periodically receive messages from fellow law students and UNB alumni across Canada asking, “What on earth is happening at your school!?” And the attention isn’t positive.

As we learn in evidence, a person or institution’s reputation is the regard that is generally held of that person or institution. So, while UNB law can influence its reputation, it doesn’t own it. Have the public or stakeholders been surveyed in some official capacity to support the statement that UNB law’s reputation remains strong and unchanged? And can that data — qualitative or quantitative — be released and addressed? I would have far more confidence in such a statement if there was data to back it up.

The “business as usual” line is especially cringe-worthy. None of this feels usual for a UNB law student. It’s not usual to have the goings-on of your law school featured as headline news on CBC and on the front page of the Telegraph-Journal. It’s not usual to see staff or faculty sometimes visibly stressed by the enormity of the situation. It’s not usual for UNB law students to be at each other’s throats battling out the issue on social media. It’s not usual to still be waiting on marks from an exam written two months prior.

And it’s not usual to see the leadership of the law student society exasperated as they operate well beyond their mandate trying to advocate on an issue that is not of their making.

Yes, the school is open and classes are proceeding. And I appreciate that much is being done by hard-working and dedicated staff, professors, and student leaders to return Ludlow Hall to normalcy. But calling this situation “usual” in the meantime ignores the elephant in the room and depreciates the highly conflicted place in which law students find themselves.

Many students who have spoken out publicly against the management of this issue have been branded as troublemakers or naysayers. I identify as neither. But, I also don’t agree that change can be effected through silence.

While it is hard to be proud of my school amid this hot mess at the moment, I care deeply about it. I was honoured to be offered a coveted out-of-province spot at New Brunswick’s largest law school. And I am grateful to many members of “team Ludlow” who have been cheerleaders of my academic achievements and summer employment success. The community of support fostered by many residents of Ludlow Hall is a lifeline that I would like to rediscover.

UNB expects law students to dedicate 100 per cent of ourselves to the school. Students should expect the same of the university — particularly now with our emotions frayed and confidence shaken.

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