Inaugural interview with Dean-designate Iacobucci

Brett Hughes (2L) and Tali Green (2L)

Following his first town hall meeting with JD students, future dean Iacobucci sat down with Ultra Vires to chat about his vision for the law school, tuition, diversity, the selection process, and more. While a common refrain was some variation on “it’s too early to say,” Iacobucci did share some insights on how he conceives of the law school and his intent to pursue a collaborative approach to leadership.

TG: What do you want students to call you? Professor Iacobucci, Dean Iacobucci, Ed, Edward, etc.?

It’s entirely up to the students. I imagine things will get done with my last name over time, some variation on “Yak” or something like that…

BH: Relatedly, going by Facebook, the main concerns of U of T Law students are power outlets for exams…and the name of the Dean’s monthly snack morning. Have you done any brainstorming?

The only one I’ve got seems a little too obvious and not that interesting, which is Yak’s Snacks. It’s something to build on, and I’m sure the creative minds around here will come up with something better than that.

BH: Can you talk in general terms about your vision for the Faculty of Law, including things you value about the status quo and areas that you think need to change?

Our commitment to providing [an] intellectual and academic approach to a legal education was our initial raison d’être and has served us incredibly well. It is important for our students, the legal profession, and other walks of life. The emphasis on teaching creative and critical problem solving is one of the most vital aspects of this academic approach to a legal education. I think that’s one of the reasons we see our alumni do so well in so many different areas—the judiciary, the political domain, the business world, social justice advocates—I don’t think that is a coincidence; I think we played some part in helping build that skillset that allowed them to succeed.

What that requires is great faculty and great students—faculty thoroughly enjoy being challenged by the students here. I don’t think I would want to change those fundamentals. I think that mission has really been key to our success and is in many ways, with the pressures that are out there, more important than ever. I think we can think about ways of delivering on that mission in ever improving ways.

We should not embark on new enterprises without a good understanding of how they connect to this mission of educating great thinkers.

BH: In recent years, [affording that vision has come at the expense of accessibility]. Tuition outpaces financial aid, salaries keep going up, the [$50 million] building campaign took money from donors that could have gone to financial aid. Can you talk about the tension between maintaining excellence and maintaining accessibility?

You’re framing that as a tension and I’m going to resist that framing, in the sense that we can’t be the institution that we are unless we’re attracting people from all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of aspirations. I think it’s vital to excellence to maintain access. There are lots of other reasons to maintain access, from a public perspective. I don’t see these two issues as being in a tension.

What we have to do is to make sure that the choices that we make are furthering the objectives of having an excellent institution, and having an excellent institution requires great students. My challenge right now is figuring out where we should be going. Financial aid is going to be a priority for all kinds of reasons, but including that reason—I don’t think we can continue to be the place we are without the quality of students that we have.

TG: Many students have a sense that U of T law is losing its status as a Canadian law school as it tries to become a leader in the international sphere. Some recent hires have little to no background in Canadian law, yet they are teaching fundamental Canadian law courses. What are your thoughts on that?

Ideas travel. It would be almost antithetical to intellectual enterprise to not be curious about what people around the world are saying about a similar problem. It would be unduly narrow to say we are going to look at ideas made in Canada only. Legal problems, though they vary around the world, have a lot of commonality. I would aspire for us to have the greatest thinkers on a particular conversation that we want to be having. That sometimes means having conversations in Europe or overseas…and I also mean conversations metaphorically in journals and the like.

I don’t think this is inconsistent with being a great Canadian law school. I think you couldn’t be a great Canadian law school if you did not engage with the great thinking that is going on around the world. To be a great Canadian law school requires having an aspiration to be a participant in the global conversation.

BH: Part of what I think being a Canadian school means is that we are in a context with more of a commitment to public post-secondary education. Do you see it as a problem that costs are being shifted more on to individual students?

What is clear to me is that accessibility and financial aid are the priority. I would get there on my own, but there’s been resounding support across the board, not just from students—it’s faculty as well. You can have all sorts of conversations about what’s gotten us to where we are, but what I’m focused on is where we are and where we’re likely to head. I’m trying to work on the margins [where] there are opportunities for gain, and I’m hoping that prioritizing access will be one where we can really maintain and ideally enhance access over time.

TG: Do you think that the law school should be charging as much as it can as long as it is able to fill classrooms?

No. The idea of auctioning off spots to the highest bidder is unattractive to me. Because the system depends on having the best students. Financial aid is targeted at the students on the margins. We are not about increasing revenue.

TG: But there are so many applicants that you’re likely to find excellent applicants who are willing to pay a lot to come here…

I’m very proud of our approach to admissions. The fact of whether someone is needy or not is not something that we look at when we’re trying to decide whether to admit.

BH: What does diversity mean to you? What kind of role does the Faculty have in recruiting students from diverse backgrounds and supporting them once they’re here?

It’s early for me to be talking about particulars, but I know we have an admissions process and emphasis on trying to reach out to communities that we’d like to see better represented here. I’d love to explore means of increasing that. What that might look like, I’m not sure, but I think there are communities that historically, and to this day, aren’t as represented in the legal community generally as we would like. It would be great to think about ways that we can reach out to these communities.

TG: Lots of our tuition dollars are going to fund faculty research. How does such research benefit students?

I will focus on the connection between research and teaching. I don’t think there’s any question that one of the reasons our degree is so valuable is because the teachers are some of the leading thinkers on some of the topics being discussed in that classroom. So students coming in to this place are fantastic and you need fantastic teachers for there to be a fruitful exchange. And a fantastic teacher isn’t just someone who is bright. It must be someone who has worked out conceptions of law that they can bring into the classroom.

I think that there is a natural connection between the kind of work that goes on here and what goes on in the classroom. There are a lot of ideas embedded in legal problems and people who are doing terrific research in an area are that much better able to discuss those ideas in the classroom as a consequence.

BH: There is an access to justice crisis in Canada. What kind of role do you see law schools generally, and U of T Law in particular, having to play in helping to address the crisis?

I’m not an expert on the access to justice crisis, so it almost makes me a little uncomfortable to say one way or the other what U of T’s precise role is. I’ve heard this, and I need to hear more about what the connection is between what we do and the access to justice crisis. My sense is that it’s not obvious to me that what we’re doing is influencing that. I need to hear more about it and I’m open to hearing more about it.

I know that colleagues here have certainly been attentive to what’s going on in access to justice—Michael Trebilcock, Albert Yoon, Kent Roach, and others have been looking at various aspects of the access to justice crisis for a while.

I also think that we have some programs here that are terrific. Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC) was of course started by the University of  Toronto Faculty of Law. I just had a meeting with Nikki Gershbain yesterday, and I think that organisation is an example of where the law school is making a great contribution, as are other law schools, by these really terrific students doing pro bono work to help in areas of laws that don’t get the attention from public funding. Obviously the clinics can play an important role there as well. So clearly we’re engaged intellectually with the problems in a very real way, with some of the programs that we run. I’m proud of those.

TG: [On the selection process.] What do you think about the secrecy? Was it important to you that it be a secret process? Do you think it impacts the credibility of the process?

I’m probably the wrong person to ask, right? This is very standard across the University. This is the way U of T runs their searches, and it’s the Provost who runs the searches.

BH: Part of it, though, is that it’s based on assumptions about the pool of candidates—that people would decline to be considered if they knew it would be public knowledge. Would that apply to you? Would you have taken your name out of consideration if you knew that it would be public?

I don’t know. I don’t know…

I understand where the question is coming from, and I understand how there could be a debate about what the best process ought to be…It’s not for the law school to say what the process ought to be…It’s hard for me to say.

BH: One of the biggest effects a Dean can have on the Law School is through hiring decisions and helping to shape the Faculty body. What will you be looking for when you’re making new hires in the years ahead? 

First of all, again, it’s a collaborative process. There’s student input, there’s faculty input, so it’s not simply up to me, and that’s important. I think that we’ve been very fortunate in the kinds of opportunities we’ve had to make the kinds of hires we’ve had in recent years. I think we made some great additions.

What we look for, what we have looked for, I will continue to look for. So people who are creative, imaginative, scholarly, legal scholars who we have a sense would be great in the classroom and would be great researchers and great citizens around the school. Those are the criteria that we always have looked for and I wouldn’t feel myself wanting to change those priorities.

BH: Any closing comments?

I’m really excited about the job. I’m excited about where the law school is. There are lots of challenges, but lots of opportunities. I care about this place a great deal.

The experience for me as a student before law school was that…I enjoyed school; it was fine. But when I came here, it was transformative for me as a student. I loved it. That’s when I knew I wanted to be around the world of ideas for a career, and teaching and scholarship. I’ve been lucky enough to have ended up here and I’m thrilled about this next chapter. It really comes from both a deep affection for, and a real belief in, this place. So I’m looking forward to it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.