UNB law school in turmoil following departures

The University of New Brunswick Faculty of Law appears to be in crisis mode as it attempts to deal with the fact it’s relatively new dean, Jeremy Levitt, has taken an administrative leave of absence just four months after taking on the job.

Levitt’s not the only faculty member to have decamped from “Canada’s great small law school.” After Levitt’s leave of absence was announced, associate dean Janet Austin resigned from that position but is still a professor at the law school. In addition, three other law profs have taken medical leave.

Retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Gérard La Forest also recently resigned as scholar-in-residence.

“Not everyone is comfortable with the change that I represent,” Levitt told the Fredricton newspaper The Daily Gleaner on Monday.

He noted that even though he is currently on leave, he remains dean of the school.

There have been reports from students about tension between Levitt, who came to UNB from Florida A & M, and the law school faculty members. Some suggest Levitt wants the law school to become an international boutique law school with increased enrolment. The school currently admits just 90 students a year with a total student body of about 230.

In his bio on the school web site, it says: “During his term as dean, Dr. Levitt will be working to increase enrolment, foster the faculty’s reputation, develop a strategic plan for academic programming and research and work with UNB’s development office in raising funds for the faculty of law.”

For its part, the university is citing “sensitive personnel issues” as the reason it has remained tight-lipped on Levitt’s absence and the faculty departures.

Former acting dean John Williamson is now serving as interim associate dean. However calls to Williamson and other staff at UNB were not returned today.

“We’re focused on helping our students, faculty, dean, and staff at the law school. As you can appreciate, the privacy of our employees is important. Indeed, we are not only morally but also legally obliged to protect it. So we will not be commenting in any detail on the issue right now,” says senior manager of communications David Stonehouse.

In addition, Stonehouse said the university is “actively engaged with students and acting on issues as they bring them to our attention as soon as we can.”

Stonehouse referred to a meeting Jan. 29 in which UNB president Eddy Campbell and vice president of academic affairs Tony Secco spoke with students. However some students said it was not helpful to those anxious about what all the upheaval means to the reputation of the school in the eyes of law firms looking to hire students.

Some students at the law school are waiting for grades from some of the professors who are on leave and wondering what will happen with the balance of the year. Some are concerned it will affect their ability to apply for jobs with law firms for the summer.

With a faculty of 17, and with five now absent, students have concerns about the gap that has left and the impact it could have on their studies.

Lyle Skinner, a UNB law student and representative on the UNB Senate, wrote a letter to administration asking them to “improve the relationship between the Dean and faculty” if Levitt returns.

"The university administration should be more willing to communicate and engage with students on the vision of what the Faculty of Law  should be.  I appreciate the administration cannot comment on employment  matters but they should be willing to foster a public discussion on the future  of the law school and its role in the larger legal community," says 3L Skinner.

Skinner pointed out the law school has had four deans in two and a half years and UNB experienced a faculty strike in early 2014.

Meanwhile, the Law Students Society has urged students not discuss the matter with the media. While many students grate at the idea of having their free speech curtailed, most of them aren’t willing to speak on the record about what’s happening.

Levitt arrived at the school in the fall from Florida A&M with big plans, some say, to expand it to be more international in terms of study. However, documents obtained by the Daily Gleaner from Florida A&M show Levitt’s move to UNB was to be a temporary two-year posting with plans to return to Florida.

Some say it’s not uncommon for academics who are looking to move on to seek a leave of absence from their current role while they take up the new job and ensure they want to pursue the position before they quit their current job.

Levitt is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities in the area of the law of the use of force, international human rights law, humanitarian law, peace studies, and African politics. He also holds the title of vice-chancellor’s chair in the faculty of law.

At Florida A&M University he served as professor of international law, associate dean for international programs, founding director of the Center for International Law and Justice and special assistant to the provost. He formerly served as a professor of law at Florida International University and DePaul University. He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, a JD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a BA from Arizona State University.

Update 5:40 pm: Comments from Skinner added.

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