Dean Iacobucci on his first year as Dean, Contracts-gate, and more

Maud Rozee (1L) and Matt Howe (3L)

At the end of March, Ultra Vires sat down with Dean Iacobucci for his second interview with us. With 30 minutes allotted, we opted to focus on some topical and timely issues. We discussed his deanship, some recent controversies, and the future of the Faculty.

Year-in-review

What did you think about your first year as Dean? Was there anything you were surprised by?

I learned a ton. I was proud of this place going in, but I find myself even prouder now. I’ve been here as a student, and I’ve been teaching here since 1998, so it’s not unfamiliar to me. But I really learned a lot about this place this year. And almost without exception, the more I know, the more I’m impressed by the people we have here—staff, faculty, and students. It’s just so fun to see how engaged people are by what they do and how much they get out of it. That’s something I knew, but now I’m feeling it even more viscerally.

When you say surprise, one part of this job is getting outside our walls and talking to stakeholders in the community. And that’s been great. Mostly because I get to bask in the reflected glory of the place. People really feel good about the education they got here. Literally just today, I was in a meeting with an alum who said “Every day I use my education.” Turns out he’s not practicing law anymore, but every day he thinks about “what I learned in this class” and his favourite professor (who I won’t single out!). To see the impact that this place has had on three generations now is really gratifying. It’s one thing to intellectually think maybe people feel this way and another to have that interaction. It makes you feel really good about what you do.

Did you make any mistakes this year? Was there anything you’d do differently?  

Yes, there’s no question. There have been little moments where…one should not assume too much about a shared understanding of a direction in which to head, let’s say. I’ll leave it at that.

So, yes, there’s a lot to learn. But I’ve been pleased, in general, with how the first year has gone. Probably other people are in a better position to say that in an evaluative way, but I’ve been pleased with the progress that we’ve made on some fronts. There’s still lots of work to be done—it’s just begun in many ways.

On student experience, I think we’ve made some strides. We had a [Mental Health and Wellness Committee] this year that gave us lots of useful suggestions for us to think about going forward. Even more importantly, I’m really delighted [Counselor] Yukimi Henry is here now, who is going to help us quarterback our strategies.

Another part of student experience is experiential education. We’ve had a committee report on different ways of conceiving of experiential education, and how we can do even better on that front. I’m pleased with the direction they’re going in. There, again, we’re going to get some additional staff support, which will be great.

And financial aid is obviously a priority, which is a big part of the student experience as well. I understand that. We are working hard on that, pleased at some progress, but obviously a long way to go. A couple of gifts you probably know about—Hal Jackman made a significant gift, for JD financial aid as well as graduate fellowships. We had the deans’ fund, where all living [U of T Law] deans committed to contribute to student financial aid, and that’s going to be a significant gift. But there’s still lots of work to be done.

Fundraising

Can you tell us anything more about the financial aid fundraising campaign at this point?

We are still in a quiet period. What we’re doing now is trying to get out there and talk to as many people as we can—present the case and hear people’s reactions and think about how we can respond. As I’ve said, there have been some gifts that I’ve been pleased about. But we’re not at a point where we’re reporting on gifts or fixing a target yet.

We’ll continue to work at it. I’ve hopefully been clear that it’s my fundraising priority going forward. But it’s too early for metrics. When the time comes, it will be helpful, I think, to have targets for the campaign, to get people enthusiastic about hitting the target, but we’re not at that stage.

Is there a contingency plan in case we’re not able to fundraise as much as we need?

Getting back to my three goals, the third is financial prudence. That’s going to be a priority across the board. As I said at Faculty Council, we have to be prudent about our costs, and we have to be imaginative in finding revenues. That is what we are going to do full steam ahead, frankly, independent of fundraising. I’m hoping that the fundraising will be a big success. We have to understand that all publicly-supported institutions are under strain. We have to be careful.

Will we be looking at the cost side of things?

I think we have to be looking at the cost side of things whether or not we’re successful with financial aid. Look, I’m confident we’ll be successful with financial aid. I’m optimistic. But we have to be careful. It’s not like if financial aid is a success we can start spending, turn on the spigot, or something like that. We have to be careful, and all these things interact.

Tuition and Financial Aid

When tuition increases started, there was a promise that 30% of increases would be set aside for financial aid. It doesn’t look like that promise has been kept. Do you think it’s feasible to return to it?

Ultimately, it will depend on what our costs are, and it will depend on the success of fundraising. One way to think about that 30% number is that could be one way to think about what a fundraising target for financial aid would look like. That “if we raise this, we could do this,” or something like that. But it would be premature to say whether we could hit that as a target at this point.

Do you know why the promise was broken in the first place?

One of the things I’ve been trying to say is that I’m focused on the future. I think we’re in a great place, and my job is to get us to a better place. The answer is: I don’t know that history. I can’t give you an answer on that.

Can you see why students might be frustrated with this history?

I’m looking forward.

Is there any discussion about returning to the 30% “set-aside” as a matter of institutional policy, as opposed to being an aspirational target in the fundraising campaign?

At the second and third Faculty Council meetings, where we talked at length about the budget, about tuition, about financial aid, what I said then was: we are in a position to commit to making sure that the financial aid pot grows at the 5% rate that tuition is growing at. That’s where I’m at in terms of looking forward.

I would love to improve that, either through prudent management of our costs, alternative sources of revenue, or fundraising. Again, it’s a priority for me. That’s the number that I gave then, and that to me is a commitment. What we can do beyond that, I’m hopeful, but I’m just not in a position to make any kind of commitment.

Convocation

The convocation speaker this year is Gerry Schwartz, a billionaire, and highest paid CEO in Canada. I’m curious as to how you feel about the convocation speaker?

I’m delighted that Gerry Schwartz is going to be speaking at convocation. Not because he’s from the finance industry. I think what honorary degrees are intended to recognize is achievement in a variety of endeavours. He has been a trailblazer. Onex is a Canadian success story. He’s also been a tremendous contributor to the community in Toronto, with his philanthropy with his partner, with charitable donations to hospitals, to the University, including the Faculty, and also with his time, which I really admire in someone that busy. He was on Governing Council for nine years, and was a very committed member. That’s why I’m excited to have him speak.

In terms of how the speaker is chosen, is the Faculty involved in that at all?

The President’s Office allocates speakers to Convocation. The President’s Office looks into connections, I presume. I’d be surprised if it weren’t some connection between the speaker and the Faculty in question. In this case, Mr. Schwartz is a lawyer by training and an example of what you can do with a law degree. And I know there was support from different quarters of the university, including from here.

When you say there was support from here, how does the Faculty come into that process?

The Faculty, formally, doesn’t. Anyone can nominate someone for an honorary degree. The President’s Office allocates speakers. We play no formal role in that.

Exam Problem Recycling

Students are talking about Professor Valcke’s reuse of an old exam for the third year in a row. What do you think about that practice? Can you see why students are unhappy?

I got the letter from the SLS [Students’ Law Society] and had a meeting with Evan [Rankin, VP StAG] and Andrew [Wang, President]. Associate Dean Rittich has had a meeting with them. We’ve heard their concerns. It is something we need to have a look at. I don’t think it’s a straightforward issue for different reasons that will undoubtedly get discussed at different points. I do think it’s a very reasonable letter, so I understand what’s being said. We will take a look at it.

Do you think it’s something you want to try to prevent in the future?

Literally, I got the letter last week. I heard about this slightly before then, but not a great deal. So I think it’s too early to say how it will play out. We will be having a look at it.

Can you speak to those things that make this not so straightforward?

I think there’s pedagogical reasons to set exams certain ways. Different instructors can have different views on pedagogy. That’s one of the complexities that’s there. But I also understand there’s evolving practices among students, technology being part of that story. There are complexities there about what practices on the ground are and how they’ve changed and whether we need to do something to address that.

Where some students have access to a past exam and others don’t, do you see that as being problematic?

I will say this. The situation last year where the institution felt that we needed to offer an alternative exam, I thought that was the right thing to do.

Will any response be offered this year?

Associate Dean Rittich is in charge of this. I’m just not close enough to these particular facts to say one way or another whether this is exactly analogous to last year.

Student Advocacy

How do you perceive the role of student advocates like the SLS and others who want to bring about changes at the law school? Do you think there are times where students are justified in taking a more adversarial approach?

I would say this: I think we all want to see the same things. I think we work best when we work together.

Mental Health

Some have criticized mental health policies for not adequately addressing how things like diversity and financial aid policies impact it. Can you speak to those intersections, and whether the Faculty should do more to address them?

Mental health is a complicated subject. Undoubtedly, there are lots of influences on mental health. I’m delighted that Yukimi Henry will be here to help us think about those problems. And we will continue to hear from the Mental Health and Wellness Committee. This is going to be an ongoing endeavour.

Can you see how student financial aid and mental health, and how the often-siloed approach that the Faculty takes, might need to be revisited?

I guess I’ve never seen a siloed approach here.

Going Forward

Any big plans for next year? What are you most looking forward to about the future of U of T Law?

The building is going to be great. That will be a major part of next year’s agenda. Undoubtedly, there will be some growing pains, but also some great opportunities, opportunities that we can see now, but also that we will see more once we’re there, for students, faculty, and staff. That’s exciting. There’s still lots of progress to be made on the priorities I discussed for the year. There’s lots of work being done, as I said earlier, that is incomplete as of now. It’s always a work in progress, but I think there are still some things we could achieve on each of these things.

I think something that will be really important is the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Committee, which should be coming in the fall. That’s something I’m excited about. As I said at Faculty Council, the vision that I’m seeing is one that follows naturally from the vision of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, which sees the study of law as an important area of academic and intellectual inquiry. I’m interested to see how Aboriginal law, Indigenous law, and First Nations perspectives inform the discussions that go on here, and become a more natural part of life at the law school.

Do you have a sense of what you want your legacy to be as Dean of this law school?

I think it would be progress on these priorities. I’d love to see progress on student experience in a bunch of different ways, I’d love to see us have some of the exciting partnerships locally, in the city, across Canada, internationally, and I’d like to leave the place in a financially healthy situation. The legacy, to me, is directly connected to progress on those goals. They’re always going to be a work in progress but I’d like to have progress on them.

This interview has been condensed and edited.