Last week, CBC reported Levitt is facing “allegations of sexism, harassment, and in one case, threats of violence by two of his former law school colleagues in Florida.”
None of the allegations by the two women have been proven and are before the courts in Florida. The lawsuits are against Florida A&M University and don’t name Levitt as a defendant.
As Legal Feeds reported last week, UNB has been dealing with the fact Levitt, who started in the role of dean last September, took a sudden leave of absence Jan. 29. After Levitt’s leave of absence was announced, associate dean Janet Austin resigned from that position but remained as a professor at the law school. In addition, three other law profs have taken medical leave.
“It is very uncertain times for sure; the confidentiality issues surrounding the nature of the leave means we don’t know when or if the dean will be coming back,” says Lee English, president of the UNB Law Students’ Society. “We’re not privy to that information but dealing with it day-by-day.”
English acknowledged the allegations are “pretty shocking” and “raised some eyebrows” but generally students are trying to look to the future of the law school.
“People are talking about it but we also appreciate there are confidentiality issues at stake and we respect the university’s position under legal and moral obligations. We are not pressing for that type of information,” he says.
English would not comment on the recent developments involving Levitt or whether the university should have been more diligent in vetting him as a candidate.
“My understanding is allegations were recently released and from what the dean stated to the CBC, he was only made aware of them recently. I’m not aware of what kinds of checks and balances were in place. I knew there was a search committee, it seemed like the process was followed,” he says. “The student concerns aren’t associated with that — it’s an administrative and faculty issue.”
For its part, the university’s senior communications manager issued the following statement:
“As with the hiring of any new dean at UNB, there was a thorough hiring process headed by a search committee with membership that included members of our law faculty, a representative from our senate, a dean from another faculty, a law student, and UNB’s vice president academic. The process included an industry-standard background check by an independent personnel agency. In this case, the agency’s background check returned nothing of concern,” said David Stonehouse.
English says he is trying to stay focused squarely on student concerns.
“It is very frustrating for law students, in particular, who are passionate advocates and who are learning a lot about the issues at play here, but we realize there are personal issues at stake,” he says.
The Friday before Levitt’s leave was announced, English said he had learned students were unhappy with disruptions and cancellations that had occurred with some classes and that some first semester marks had not been returned to them.
English says acting associate dean John Williamson has since taken steps to help students obtain marks that were outstanding.
“Yesterday [Feb. 5], one of the classes received their marks so the process is in place to resolve that situation and we’re already seeing results,” he says. “We’re satisfied that has been addressed.”
Two classes were awaiting grades — one half of the first-year torts class had experienced a delay and an upper-year family law course of second- and third-year students was also awaiting first semester grades.
English says the grade delays have not “generally” hurt UNB law students in securing summer and articling positions with law firms.
“UNB students are still landing jobs. We had a successful round of on-campus interviews recently. We’re motivated and passionate and will find success no matter what challenges we face,” he says. “The issues affecting the university have brought some negative public attention to our school but those are administrative and faculty issues.”
While some reports have stated English had told students not to speak to the media, he says that is not true. He describes it as a “woefully inaccurate mischaracterization of the situation.”
He says it was simply suggested that communication to the press be “channeled through the Law Students’ Society.”
“We never suggested that they couldn’t speak to the media or publicly. We did encourage people to exercise discretion and restraint in their public comments when the information was so scant,” he says. “We absolutely encourage public discourse and communication.”