Ultra Vires


Inside the Faculty Council: The Faculty Council Approves

This months “Inside the Faculty Council” is a special double feature as I report on not one, but two Faculty Council meetings. Be still your beating hearts. For starters, I am very pleased to announce my renewed endorsement of the lunch provided. October’s paltry offering appears to been something of an anomaly.

November’s meeting features succulent salmon, chicken, and roasted vegetable sandwiches, while January’s wraps were fresh and stuffed to perfection. Salad and dessert both made strong showings at each event, and tea and coffee helps to take the edge of the winter chill. Attendance too returned to its start of the year level, with barely a spare seat to be seen in November, and even fewer spots available for January’s discussion of curricular reform.

While attendance and food quality were excellent across the two meeting, they showcased a substantial contrast of the roles the council is intended to play. I believe that, at its best, the Faculty Council is a deliberative body where the faculty and students can gather to discuss pressing issues that face the university.

Specialized committees present the results of their long work to the larger law school community, to seek further consultation on thorny issues or approval for fully-fledged suggestions. This aspect of the Faculty Council was on perfect display this January as the Curriculum Committee presented their interim report on the proposed changes to the curriculum.

The committee members provided a detailed summary of their findings and provisional suggestions in advance of the meeting, while Professor Lee provided a succinct and clear overview of the committee’s findings, suggestions, and questions, at the meeting itself. This allowed for a focused and informative discussion amongst the faculty and students that was exciting and informative.

The committee was charged with answering three questions: should administrative law be moved to upper years; if yes, what if anything should take its place; and lastly, should first year courses be semestered or full-year (and if so, what would these schedules look like)?

The committee’s provisional suggestions based on extensive consultations were that administrative law should be moved, and that addition time should be spent on legal research, writing, and methods. While there was some discussion on whether admin law should be mandatory in second year or not, and on the nature and timing of the additional legal skills training, these suggestions were, as the committee predicted, fairly uncontroversial.

The question of replacing full-year first-year classes with semesters was a much more contentious one. The committee went to the council with not to vet a specific suggestion, but rather to discuss a number of different options the committee had identified as potential options.

This had the advantage of grounding the discussion in specifics, allowing for thoughtful opinions to be expressed and debated in comprehensible manner. Issues ranged from the desirability of having the last two weeks of august dedicated to an intensive first-year legal skills course, to the effect of reducing lecture sizes from 85 to 62 students (while increasing small groups from 16 to 20).

While no consensus was reached, I left the meeting with the impression that some clear directions for further research was provided to the committee, as well as a general sense of the range of opinions and concerns present amongst the students and faculty. Effective, dynamic, and with a true consultative role, it seemed clear to me that it was for meetings like this that Faculty Council was created to be the be governing body of the law school.

In contrast, I believe last November’s meeting showcased some of the least desirable elements of Faculty Council. Despite a robust attendance and a well-fed audience, discussion was minimal and a number of items received a rubber stamp with no possibility of real consultation.

Problems began even before the meeting. Half of the documents under discussion for approval were unavailable prior to the meeting. These included the minutes of the previous meeting and the modification of the JD programs as required by the Law Society.

Previously I had expressed concern with the content of the official minutes and the fact that there was some confusion amongst the students at the meeting as to what exactly the changes to the curriculum entailed. While these are not especially controversial topics, I think it’s reasonable for me to request that the governing body of our law school at least theoretically be able to make informed decisions about what it does and does not approve.

A similar issue was apparent with the council’s approval of the addition of an LLM concentration in Health Law. Although the Dean was quick to note that this decision was driven by student demand and only undertaken after significant consultation, it still struck me as undesirable that faculty had no means to truly engage with the question of its desirability at this final crucial juncture.

No prior material regarding its proposal was sent out, and the presentation of it at Faculty Council focused as much on how much prior approval it had already received as it did on explaining the actual nature of proposal. The Dean was surprised to note that a student representative chose to abstain on each of these three votes, but I was surprised more student representatives didn’t.

According the U of T’s website, students make up a third of the voting members of Faculty Council. Yet it seems clear to me that the expectation on students and faculty alike is to approve any and all issues brought before them, regardless of whether they consider themselves reasonably informed or not.

Faculty Council meetings are frequently very interesting, and the reports and updates provided are important information for the faculty and students to have. But after four meetings I have been left with the general impression that rather like October’s unfortunate food, January’s substantive discussion on the changing the curriculum was an aberration not the norm for the council.          Obviously in-depth discussion on every single issue that had to approved by Faculty Council would create a bureaucratic nightmare, but I don’t think its too much to ask that the final arbiter of decision making at the law school at minimum be allowed to make informed decisions, rather than be expected to provide a rubber stamp that theoretically reflects the approval of the students and faculty of our school.

Recent Stories