Faculty Affairs: Gender, Accessibility, and Diversity Committee Sparks Discussion

Matt Howe (3L)

The March 9, 2016 Faculty Council meeting focused primarily on the presentation of several final committee reports. Dean Iacobucci opened, however, by addressing recent criticism of the Faculty’s “Deemed Days” religious accommodations policy.

The Deemed Days policy only accommodates certain Jewish holidays. (Although certain Christian holidays are also “accommodated” apart from Faculty policy as provincial statutory holidays). Iacobucci said that the policy was outdated and under-inclusive. He thanked students, particularly Nabila Pirani, for raising concerns and “approaching this issue with a spirit of constructive engagement.” Iacobucci said that he will consult with students and faculty to develop a more inclusive policy for future years.

Professor Mariana Mota Prado introduced the final report of the Gender, Accessibility, and Diversity Committee. The Committee’s mandate was to further explore the recommendations of an earlier report and to consult with students, staff, and faculty about how to make the law school more inclusive.

The Committee’s recommendations target both particular and systemic issues. One encourages faculty, students, and staff to “promote awareness of avoiding insensitive gender-based comments, for example [by] encouraging the use of gender-neutral pronouns in class.” Another suggests that faculty members “incorporate socio-economic analysis into class lectures, for example socio-economic issues in case law or the socio-economic barriers to access to justice.”

These recommendations were criticized by Spencer Burger, a 3L Students’ Law Society (SLS) Student Affairs and Governance (StAG) representative. Burger was concerned about their potential to “infringe on academic freedom by regulating speech and encouraging certain political content.” Burger also said he thought the student body is already aware of socioeconomic barriers to access to justice and would prefer to learn doctrine in class. “Asking [professors] to incorporate more political issues is not what students would appreciate.”

Prado responded by noting that the report simply makes suggestions; Faculty Council would not police anyone’s speech. Furthermore, she said it was important to have these kinds of conversations in classrooms and that students can learn both black-letter law and its social context. “It’s not a zero sum game.”

Burger disagreed. “I paid $100,000 to learn law. Often there is not enough time to cover anything but the material.” He also suggested that “if this is a political institution, we should advertise it as such.”

SLS Vice President StAG, Evan Davidson, observed that SLS members and students were instrumental in preparing the report, and that the Committee’s recommendations were reflective of student voices. Again, Burger disagreed. “Some students were afraid to speak up. The student body is not uniform on this.”

After the meeting, Burger said that four SLS StAG representatives silently expressed their agreement with his criticisms of the report. He thinks it was inappropriate for Davidson to suggest the report is wholly reflective of student opinion. “[Evan’s] willingness to suggest that reasonable criticism was sort of illegitimate reflects a lack of understanding of the diversity of opinion at this school.”

Burger also stressed later that he has “no problem with politics in class per se” and personally tries to use correct pronouns, but he questions whether “it’s appropriate for Faculty Council to be sanctioning certain political views to be discussed in the classroom.” “I respect and endorse the vast majority of the recommendations. But there seems to be a trend for increasing politicization on the part of what we expect from professors. I don’t think that’s part of the core values of U of T. We’re not Osgoode.”

Professor Martha Shaffer spoke to the Mooting and Advocacy Committee report, which listed recommendations made by the student-run Moot Court Committee (MCC). These include: expanding oral advocacy opportunities in all years, particularly by introducing a moot requirement to the first-year curriculum; encouraging greater faculty involvement; and revising the credit offered to student moot coaches to remove the ten-page paper requirement. The Mooting and Advocacy committee supported the first two recommendations, but noted that removing the paper requirement was “trickier” because most ungraded credit opportunities require students to prepare some kind of written work.

Professor Andrew Green presented the Environmental Sustainability Working Group’s final report. The Group intends to look carefully at the new building when it opens to “identify priorities for sustainability.” The report notes that “while the main design items [of Jackman Hall] are set, there may be elements that can be easily altered to improve the sustainability of how our students, staff and faculty live and work in the new environment, such as waste disposal, energy efficiency, and access to active means of transport.”

The Group is also of the view that the move presents an opportune time to develop an overarching sustainability policy for the Faculty. Going forward, the Group intends to identify opportunities to ensure that healthy and sustainable food is served at Jackman Hall’s new café, and that the Faculty provides adequate space for bike storage.

Finally, the Library and Technology Committee final report was presented by Interim Chief Librarian Gian Medves. The Committee continues to deal with issues arising from the library’s recent move. They are also working towards the implementation of a digital repository for Faculty scholarship.