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Coming home to advance equality: Ryerson’s Faculty of Law Dean Donna Young

Law school’s founding commitment to equality convinced Young to come back from the United States

Coming home to advance equality: Ryerson’s Faculty of Law Dean Donna Young
Donna Young is the inaugural dean of the Faculty of Law at Ryerson University.

While many Canadians would not look to the United States as a place to learn about equality, this was never the case for Donna Young.

Young has learned many lessons about how equality can be advanced through the law south of the border. She recently returned from the U.S. after several decades with the hope to put these lessons into action in her new role as dean of the faculty of law at Ryerson University.

When Young was a young law student at Osgoode Hall Law School in the early 1990s, academics did not seem like a realistic option. At the time, there were just one or two Black law professors in Canada, and her interests in critical race theory made her an outlier.

She decided, though, to find out what was happening in the U.S. in this area, in what turned out to be a formative experience.

Young drove 12 hours to the second annual critical race theory conference in Wisconsin. She crashed on her cousin-in-law's couch and found a group of scholars who were delving into issues that were on the cutting edge of legal academia. It was there that she met Derrick Bell, who was the first Black law professor at Harvard Law School.

Bell turned to Young and told her she needed to think about going into the legal academy.

“It was the first time that anyone had ever suggested that I become a law professor,” Young says.

While Young did find professors at Osgoode who became mentors, she credits Bell with planting the idea in her head that never left.

After graduating from law school, Young worked in various positions outside of academia in Canada, including articling at labour boutique Cornish Roland and working at the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

But Young soon gravitated back to the United States and legal academia.

Initially, she went with her partner to New York as he studied for his LL.M. at Columbia Law School, in what was supposed to be a temporary move. Young worked at the New York City Department of Labor Relations. But another chance encounter with feminist legal scholar Martha Fineman, who was teaching at Columbia and Young met in a feminist reading group, solidified her interest in academics.

Young soon accepted a position as a visiting professor at the Albany law school and began her 25-year legal academic career in the United States.

While Young taught in many areas, including criminal law, employment law, federal civil procedure, gender and work, race and rape culture, her work with the American Association of University Professors was where her commitment to academic freedom really took hold.

Young took leave from her academic role in 2014 and accepted a staff position as the senior program officer with the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance.

Young says she saw many examples of professors who were subject matter experts, but “administrations were not listening to the faculty in exactly the areas where the faculties were the experts.

“The problem in the United States was essentially that tenure was disappearing, and academic freedom was being threatened because tenure is the protection for academic freedom.”

Administrators were often taking harsh action against faculty critics, including closing departments and imposing standards without faculty consultation.

Some critics of legal academia say that tenure can make laws schools too slow to evolve. Young strongly disagrees.

“Tenure is actually protective of exactly the kind of activism that people are saying that law professors should engage in,” she says.

What Young also learned from her experience at the AAUP was that she had no interest in working as an administrator. “I was so turned off administration. It was a real eye opening how really bad administrators could be and I really was more of a critic of administration.”

So why has Young returned to Canada and taken on a role as an administrator given her experiences with both?

“I think Ryerson was doing something kind of unusual. They appointed a founding dean who had never been a dean before. And I think that they saw in my candidacy some promise, in terms of my research area, in terms of my commitment to [equality, diversity and inclusion] and in terms of my kind of leadership role as a faculty advocate.

“I've seen law schools commit themselves to these things. But to begin a law school, where those were your fundamental constitutional principles that you were building the structure around, was completely unusual.”

What is also unusual but completely unplanned by Ryerson is starting from scratch during a pandemic.

“All of a sudden, those hallway, spontaneous conversations end. Going into someone's office and brainstorming end. We have to do all of this by appointment and by video chat, which is extremely artificial,” says Young.

“With all the challenges that all of us have had during the pandemic, I think that the challenge of building Ryerson law was more acute. Having said that, I cannot believe how well we've done.”

Even after the pandemic has passed and students are able to return to in-person classes, though, Young is hoping Ryerson will still be a law school outlier. Young’s response to critics who say there are already too many lawyers in Canada exemplifies this hope. 

Most Canadians who are going through the justice system as self represented “don't have lawyers. So, if we have too many lawyers, then why is it that our population is not being served by them?

“What Ryerson can do that no other legal institution can do is do the kind of hiring right now from the beginning that will address many of [these] concerns.”

For Young, that was worth returning home to do.

Key Dates

1991: Graduated with LL.B. from Osgoode Hall Law School of York University

1994-2019: Professor in various positions at Albany Law School

2020: Accepted current position at Ryerson University

Ryerson Law by the Numbers

1,953 — Number of applicants
170 — Size of inaugural class
18 — Number of full-time faculty (including cross appointments)
14 — Number of adjunct faculty (co-teachers) teaching in fall semester
30 — Number of orientation events in July and August

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