Ultra Vires


Moving On Up: Alexis Archbold’s Last Words as Assistant Dean

Tali Green (2L)


Job description over the years

NG: What was your role supposed to be when you were hired?

AA: In 2005 I was hired as the LAWS director, and in 2008 I was asked by Dean Moran to cover then-Assistant Dean Students Bonnie Goldberg’s leave of absence. It was only supposed to be for a year. I was terrified of this job, and it was much bigger than what I was doing at LAWS. After a year, when Bonnie didn’t come back, I stayed on.

When I first stepped into the role, I had 4 direct staff reports covering LAWS, admissions and financial aid, and records, and I was responsible for all of the student affairs and the student accommodations.

There are now 14 people who report directly to my position, and I am still responsible for the student affairs and accommodations. I now oversee the CDO, admissions and financial aid, the student programs coordinator, LAWS, PBSC, IHRP, DLS, the Asper Centre, the Center for Innovation Law and Policy, the Aboriginal law program, and, until 1 month ago, records. There has been enormous growth in this portfolio.

I also oversee many of our diversity access and outreach programs including the Law School Access Program, the Aboriginal Youth Summer Program, the “See Yourself Here” annual open house, a new LGBTQ Law Access and Mentoring Program, the law school’s Youth Summer Program mini-law summer camp, and of course, LAWS.

As with any management position, a huge component of the job is supervising the staff– and all of the HR duties that come with it such as hiring, coaching, performance assessments, and reviews.

NG: From a student’s point of view, you were the single point of contact for all of the school’s administrative issues. Now that you’re leaving, will the job be fragmented?

AA: Students know they can call me and ask any question and that I’ll deal with it or I’ll refer them to someone else. That’s going to stay the exact same way. Assistant Dean Judith McCormack is covering in an acting role for approximately 2 months. She covered my maternity leave in 2010, and so really knows the job. The law school is in the process of hiring someone into the permanent role – they should be here sometime in the fall.

NG: And that person will be that single point of contact?

AA: Absolutely. That shouldn’t change. As far as I know, the portfolio will be exactly the same as I described.


Upcoming changes and reasons for departure

NG: How did the law school change over your nine year term? 

AA: Dean Moran, from the beginning, established herself as a dean very focused on the student experience. She supported me thinking about mental health issues and student wellness in general, and I think that this has been a cultural shift in the law school. If you had been here before, you would have felt the place changing with Mayo and her priority on the student experience. Evidence of that is the explosion of my portfolio in particular.

For example, Mayo was very firm about staff being friendly and respectful and compassionate in every interaction with students. She didn’t tolerate grumpiness or a bureaucratic way that university faculties can sometimes feel like – where when you interact with the staff, you feel like a number. She was very clear that students should feel welcome here the moment they walk through the door. She was also very keen that we consult students in a variety of ways. She was supportive of setting up the CDO advisory committee, the health and wellness advisory committee, and the lunches that Dean Alarie and I set up where we met with every single 1L student and most of the 2L class. This was to make sure that our work and initiatives were well-informed by students’ input. These were her values. You might not have felt this quite as strongly in previous administrations.

NG: This year the school is getting a new dean and a new assistant dean. How is the school going to make these transitions go smoothly?

AA: We’re making all efforts to ensure that students should feel this transition as little as possible. For example, it is important to us that Assistant Dean McCormack is introduced as the Assistant Dean Students to the incoming 1L class during OWeek. That way, at least a 3rd of the class, hopefully won’t really know any difference.

NG: But she will only hold that position for about two months…

AA: Yes, but I am sure that Assistant Dean McCormack will make all efforts to make the transition to the next person very smooth. While change is always difficult, this is a time of incredible opportunity for the law school. This role is pivotal to the law school, and having someone come with fresh ideas and fresh enthusiasm and quite possibly a different way of doing things is healthy to injecting and breathing new life into it.

What I’ve come to learn is that people leave, but everyone moves on so quickly. You guys are never going to notice that I was gone. You’ll just move quickly to the next person. I think it’s a really exciting time for the law school. I think the next few years are going to be very interesting to watch.

NG: Is your departure in any way related to Dean Moran’s departure? Do you feel that it was inevitable that if she leaves, you will have to leave too?

AA: No. Not at all. In fact, I’ve known that her term was coming to an end for a long time.  And that didn’t impact my decision to leave. Having said that, when a boss leaves, it’s not completely uncommon for folks who have worked very closely with that person to think, oh, maybe – what’s next? And is it here, or maybe someone else? I never felt like I was somehow linked to her…it just so happened.

NG: But her departure got you thinking about looking for other opportunities?

AA: Yes, I think so. That’s a good way to put it.

NG: Can you speak a little bit about your decision to go?

AA: Every job has a certain life span. For me, it happened that that span was about 6 years. I got to a point where I started to feel like I had accomplished almost everything that I really wanted to accomplish here, and it was time for me to move on to the next place where I can apply my creativity and my talent to a new set of circumstances. It just happened organically. And around the same time, Rotman presented the opportunity. It was a torturous decision but it felt natural when it happened. I had started thinking about it before Mayo even announced that she was leaving.

NG: But we still need you here – to accomplish more!

AA: I will hand over a set of accomplishments, and the next person can build on them. This keeps it so fresh and alive. Some people stick around in these jobs forever. Sometimes that works in an institution. But I think that for this job in particular, there needs to be fairly regular renewal.

NG: Do you think that you were getting burnt out or less motivated?

AA: No, I wouldn’t put it that way. I would just repeat what I said earlier – that all of the things that I saw needed to be addressed were completed embraced by Mayo and we got them done. I feel that I accomplished what I could, and it was time to pass it the next person.



NG: When you started here in 2005, tuition was about $17,000. It is now over $30,000. What are the tangible outcomes of that sudden burst of cash?

AA: This is a very good question for a dean, who has their hands on the entire law school. From my perspective, from what I understand, the increases in tuition went to the rising costs of administering a law school. For example, compensation gobbles up the majority of any institution’s budget. Most of our staff and faculty are unionized. Annual salary increases negotiated with the central university are built-in cost increases.

The higher tuition also gave the law school the resources and better ability to attract and retain really incredible talent – the top graduates coming on to the faculty market. When you have excellent professors, you attract excellent students. Then top rate students attract top rate professors. And it is a self-perpetuating cycle. The strength of our class and faculty has a lot to do with why our students get so many jobs. And that’s why U of T has such a great reputation world-wide. Deans Daniels and Moran wanted to make sure that we have the best faculty we can possibly have.

The increased tuition also allows us to sustain an expansion of a huge array of programs and offerings such as our Alumni mentoring program, our 1L Academic Support Program, more than 130 upper year courses, more combined program than any other law school in Canada, unique exchange programs, a highly successful mooting program, four student journals, the Aboriginal Law Program, the only post-graduation tuition relief program in the country, and one of the largest financial aid programs in the country.

NG: Do you think the higher tuition put more pressure on staff and faculty to “cater” to students as consumers?

AA: I would say no. What motivates staff and faculty is to provide excellent academic programming and services to students. That has always been the case, as it has always been the driving ethos here. When tuition was $4,000, I suspect that my predecessors were working just as hard.


Accommodations and Mental Health

NG: What are your thoughts on U of T law students’ mental health issues, and how have they changed over your time here?

AA: It was always important to Dean Moran and I to see students as whole people, not just as students. Part of that was being more open to supporting students to succeed in school. So we started to ask – how can the law school support students to take care of themselves to get the most of their law school experience? We all know that law school is a stressful place to be. You have a group of talented people competing for what is perceived to be a limited market of jobs. That can create a toxic environment. We started to say – lets have an honest conversation. Let’s acknowledge and normalize their feelings. Before, there was a lot of stigma surrounding these issues. Students weren’t talking about their stress. This was a major shift with Dean Moran. And we wanted them to know that we have a compassionate response. We listened to students tell us about their experience and then we worked with students to think about what we can do proactively to address these issues.

NG: Did the accommodations become more generous since Dean Moran was in office?

AA: There is sort of a common law of accommodations – which I inherited from my predecessors. If you look at it, you’ll see that the policy itself is quite brief. There are many years of practice which have established the parameters. So to answer your question – hopefully with our change in culture, students have become more willing to come and talk to me about their issues where before they might not have, and as such we would be able to offer accommodations to them.

NG: Did you see an impact from all of these efforts to help students deal with stress?

AA: Yes, in that we heard from students that it was a positive thing. But it’s hard to detect an actual impact. What I can tell you is that the number of students who came to see me grew noticeably. More importantly, we heard from students – especially those who started as 1L’s and observed the changes during their time here. The feedback we got was very positive. I’m not saying we solved the problem, but I think we started a conversation.

NG: Do you ever feel like students abuse the accommodation policy? Where students who don’t really need the accommodation get it, and then have an advantage over other students who wouldn’t be willing to take that route?

AA: No. Our accommodation policy- the way we administer it – is actually quite strict. I think it’s appropriately strict, in so far as we require evidence of severe illness or extraordinary personal circumstances. We require documentation in almost every single circumstance. So it’s not me trying to diagnose how sick a student is. I say to students: “I’m so sorry to hear you’re ill – and now I require a qualified physician, or a counselor or psychiatrist to support your claim.” Once we have documentation – which gives me information on the duration of the illness, etc – then the accommodation itself is tailored to the individual student’s circumstances.

Because of the requirement for documentation and the threshold as high as it is – which is clear from the policy –and the fact that we’re dealing with law students who are working extremely hard and who take their conduct in their studies very seriously, I don’t think it’s being taken advantage of.

I will say that the volume of accommodation requests has gone up. As a result of our feeling a lot of pressure to administer the policy with the number of requests that we receive, we are looking at changing the accommodation process, and I’m in the process of that right now. The law school is thinking of creating even more clarity about the circumstances in which students can get request accommodation. It’s not intended to be stricter, but just to be very clear from the outset whether students will qualify. It will save students from making requests that they weren’t going to be eligible for anyway.

NG: A large part of your role was helping students deal with mental health issues and arranging accommodations for mental illness. What do you think can help keep law school stress under control?

AA: I’ll answer from my own law school experience. I remember going through law school and worrying a lot that I wasn’t going to meet some external measure of success. There is this sense that there’s only one definition of what it means to have made it as a law student or as a young lawyer. And there’s not a lot of space given for other ideas of what success can look like. I felt that very much in law school. I worked for Planned Parenthood Toronto before I came to law school; I was doing some great work in the community and I really saw myself as being an activist. I saw law school as being my next step in becoming a leader in that field.

But that strong sense of self and pride for what I had accomplished before I got to law school unraveled at Osgoode. I felt that a new definition of success smothered my own vision of what that would be. In hindsight, I wish I had held on longer and tighter to my own sense of self. Because the reality is that, especially in the law, there are a million different definitions of success. There are so many things you can do with a law degree, and our students are so successful in the end in getting positions – we know this statistically – that there is a lot of hope there. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had held on tighter to that hope and to a sense of enthusiasm about what is coming next.



NG: You are a yoga junkie – what is your yoga schedule like and what is your most calming yoga pose? 

AA: My yoga schedule is whenever I can fit in it, but at least weekly. As for my favourite pose:  definitely the Sphynx. It totally releases my lower back and feels wonderful.

NG: You often sent us all emails late at night. Can you describe what a typical evening looked like?

AA: Typically, I run home and pick up my daughter Maeve by 6pm. Then I give her tons of attention and find out about her day – really focusing on connecting with her. I then make dinner, feed my cat and dog, get Maeve bathed, put her to bed. And then I take a deep breath, hopefully with a glass of wine. After all that, I start getting on top of my correspondence with students. It was a commitment of mine to get back to students as fast as I could, ideally within 24 hours or even shorter, but part of my portfolio involved having lots of meetings during the day. So that’s why I was always emailing at 10pm.

I’ve been told that I was a poor role model for students and I wasn’t properly managing my time – that I was somehow encouraging a lack of boundaries around work/life balance. But my efforts were only to get back to students as quickly as possible.

NG: It’s ok – your late night emailing helped familiarize us with the Bay Street lifestyle.

AA: That’s not what I was aiming for.

NG: You mentioned you wanted to add a few more words at the end…

AA: Yes. I wanted to say that I’ve loved this job. It has been an incredible experience, for a couple reasons. The people are incredible, and getting to know the students has been amazing. My colleagues are incredible and are a great team. When you feel like you are working toward a mission with a great team, it just doesn’t get better. I feel blessed by the time I spent at the law school, and by having the opportunity to build its student services and diversity access initiatives. Feeling that what I do has an impact is really the ultimate scenario for a work place, and I had it here. It’s been amazing.

Recent Stories