On the Importance of Student Voices at U of T Law

Kassandra Shortt (3L)

At the October 2015 Faculty Council meeting, Dean Iacobucci essentially asked why law students can’t be more positive.  I’ve heard similar sentiments from fellow students as well. What’s all the fuss about?

I don’t purport to speak for all students but, from my observations and experience, students care. Students care about making the law school a better place. Students care about improving the legal profession.

For example, there are legitimate, yet divergent, arguments to be made on the role of legal education and how it ought to be financed. It should be possible for all stakeholders to come together and have a reasonable conversation about these important issues. However, this has proved all but impossible at U of T Law for some time now, at least for student stakeholders.

Take the above-referenced Faculty Council meeting. Dean Iacobucci condemned students for taking what he characterized as an “adversarial” approach in requesting data. But the administration has never made any alternative possible as it refuses to share its data on accessibility or to collect any more.

Yes, there are some students who so fundamentally disagree with tuition increases and reduced public support for legal education that they will likely never be satisfied with any answer the administration could offer. Yet there are also students who are open to the administration’s position, but are sincerely concerned about the lack of transparency. These students want  first-hand assurance that accessibility is being rigorously monitored. Either way, all of these perspectives should be heard and considered. Citing the lack of productivity of select views is an inadequate rationale for closing the discussion entirely.

Perhaps it is naïve to imagine that the administration would have a vision of the law school that includes meaningful consideration of student interests. U of T Law, however, sells itself on the consumer perspective—come to U of T Law; your tuition pays for excellence!—and thereby invites comment from these students qua consumers of legal education. Students clearly want to comment and participate in the discussion but are told again and again that their perspectives are not worthwhile. This is the wrong approach to students caring.

But tuition is just one example of many. From accommodations and mental health policy to exam reuse to the decanal selection process, student perspectives are occasionally aired but rarely truly considered in the governance of the law school. Yet students are members of the U of T Law community, just as faculty, alumni, and, yes, the administration are. Most charitably, the latter appears to have lost sight of the student interest as a potentially valuable voice in our community. However, the law school never wastes an opportunity to brag about its students. With a student body so impressive, why not consider what we have to say about our own institution, in which we have invested so much?

Moreover, universities are meant to be bastions of ideas. The exchange of ideas and considered discussion is at the heart of U of T Law’s raison d’être as an academic institution. Suppressing student voices in policy discussions at the law school is antithetical to this mission. The administration should seek to foster such discussions, not stifle any attempt to deviate from the institutional line. This approach breeds cynicism and animosity at a time when law schools should be promoting positive engagement by law students in the face of challenges to the law school and the legal profession. There are also devastating effects on the feeling of community at the law school.

Even so, I will attempt to frame this in a perspective the administration is most likely to understand: this approach will harm the law school in the long run. By failing to remotely consider the student experience, U of T Law is alienating an entire generation of future alumni, and with this making the most convincing case against donating to this institution that I can imagine. I personally will never donate to U of T Law and know many of my classmates feel the same.

This brings us to the recent debacle regarding the administration’s unilateral changes to the convocation celebration for the Class of 2017 onward, and subsequent backtracking.

It is wrong to take this platform away from students, regardless of your opinion of the substance of the critiques of the law school featured in recent valedictorian addresses. This speech by a democratically elected student representative is one of the few remaining opportunities for students to feel as though they are heard after three or more years of being ignored when trying to speak. It has taken on outsized significance given the current culture of the law school administration. It’s what we have.

Rather than panicking over what students might have to say about various issues, the administration should reframe its thinking: this is just students caring loudly at you. I think we all want to make the law school better, even if we disagree about how to do so. But let’s at least have a meaningful conversation. It will be worthwhile.