The end of an era

Nicholas Kasirer: "McGill law graduates are intellectuals, they believe in McGill because McGill is a university, not because it’s a trade school.”/ Photo: Rachel Granofsky
Nicholas Kasirer: "McGill law graduates are intellectuals, they believe in McGill because McGill is a university, not because it’s a trade school.”/ Photo: Rachel Granofsky

Nicholas Kasirer reflects on his tenure as Dean of Law

By Pascal Zamprelli

“The biggest disappointment that I have had so far in my wonderful job,” admitted McGill Provost Anthony Masi when addressing the crowd gathered for Convocation Dinner, “is not being able to convince Professor Nicholas Kasirer to serve a second term as Dean of the Faculty of Law.”

This sentiment, and the fact it is shared by so many, give some indication of the loss for McGill Law that Dean Nicholas Kasirer’s decision not to seek a second term represents.

Kasirer took the reins in November of 2003, in what was an eventful, if uncertain, time. Many believed a funding crisis threatened the future of the Faculty; a spate of retirements called for a concerted recruitment effort; and McGill’s groundbreaking Transsystemic programme, which sees students both the Common Law and the Civil Law comparatively, was barely five years old. Furthermore, Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, who had begun her own term a few months earlier, was asking all the faculties to present a strategic plan for the future.

Strategy rooted in history

Kasirer immediately decided that his strategic plan would be rather “un-strategic,” in that it would not attempt to reinvent the Faculty or chart a wildly different course. Instead Kasirer wanted to focus on the historical strengths at the core of the Faculty’s identity.

“I certainly wasn’t proposing a change in direction for the Faculty,” he said. “The plan took comparative law and legal pluralism, and put it right at the centre of things. No messing around, no equivocating,  no branding ourselves on anything but our history and our future. It championed the core, what was key to the identity of the faculty. And if that worked, it was a guarantee that the so-called strategic plan would take off, because it would be who we are.”

At the root of this vision was Kasirer’s understanding of the distinct nature of legal education at McGill. “It’s not just a place where you work to become a lawyer, or even a transystemmic lawyer,” he explained. “It’s a foundational education. And that needed to be said in a really loud voice.” The plan showed how various areas of strength – from human rights to international arbitration – overlapped in many ways, and were all tied to the central notion of legal pluralism.

With that in hand, one of the first orders of business was to quell the concerns over money, including putting an end to any rumours that McGill might choose the path taken by some other major Canadian law schools,  and privatize.  Instead, Kasirer thought it best to convince all concerned that if they focused on the project itself, and told the Faculty’s story, the money would follow.

“No talk about privatization,” he said, recounting one of the first messages he stressed as Dean. “I don’t believe in it. On the basis of a publicly purposed university, we’re going to correct our finances because the resources are out there; we just have to marshal them. People will give money if they believe in the project, so first of all we have to believe in the project ourselves, we have to sell the project to the community, and I as Dean, I had to get out there.”

Strengthening and sharing an identity

And get out there he did, leading an effort to reconnect with a number of stakeholders and share what made McGill Law special. “I said we have a project, we have to get this message out to everybody: to people recruiting in law firms, to the Quebec Bar, to people in government, to people who just have forgotten that they graduated from McGill because they’ve become members of the Law Society of Upper Canada.”

Thus, Kasirer became the Faculty’s principal ambassador, taking great pride in emphasizing the message that “McGill’s historical self is McGill’s future,” and that there was no need to fear the new programmes’s distinct nature. Rather, it represented a natural progression based on McGill’s storied past. This community was different than other law schools, and would offer, as it always had, a different kind of legal education.

“I’m going to talk to you about nomadic jurisprudence,  or dialogic jurisprudence, but not to be red-faced about it, not to be apologetic about using big words,” Kasirer explained. “Why? Because McGill law graduates are intellectuals, they believe in McGill because McGill is a university, not because it’s a trade school.”

But the Faculty is more than a collection of smart people. It is a carefully built community, one that – through its students, faculty, and staff – reflects the diversity of legal education within. “You know, we could fill the class twice over with A+ students from Southern Ontario,” he says, “but that’s not the project at all.”

Professors, too, would be recruited with a view to how they would fit within this community, rather than based solely on their individual accomplishments. So a Faculty that was afraid five years ago of having too much talent retire is now “full of young people publishing great work and teaching in imaginative ways.”

Furthermore, the establishment of two new awards – one for dedication to the Faculty of Law and a second for outstanding contribution to the law – helped raise the profile of the Faculty and celebrate its uniqueness.

“Reminding people of these deep values – the intellectual approach to the law as foundational discipline, the transsystemmic lifeblood that has always been part of the Faculty – has been a source of confidence to everybody,” said Kasirer, continually emphasizing the link between the place’s past, and its future. “The core is the strategy,” he said. “And the strategy is not a three-year plan, it’s not a five-year plan. It’s like the Catholic Church – it’s a thousand-year plan.”

Moving on

And, as with any good thousand-year plan, there comes a time when a leader decides it is time to pass the gauntlet. Despite pleas from all corners that he stay on for a second term, Kasirer chose to move on.

“It’s been 5 1/2 years, and that’s a good long time in my own life and my family’s life,” he said.  “I think it’s a right moment for me and for the Faculty to look for something different. At one level I’d like it to go on forever, but assuming one has to leave and you want to quit while you’re ahead, it’s best to leave when the place is harmonious, peaceful, relatively prosperous.”

Kasirer can think of many things he will miss, not the least of which is the “social dimension of the job,” including attending countless events and meeting students, other Deans, and graduates (“I could go to the reunion of the class of ‘58 every Saturday for the rest of my life and I’d be perfectly happy doing it”). As for something he won’t miss, Kasirer glances at his Blackberry and mentions the “breakneck pace to being Dean that’s not entirely conducive to good health.”

But moments later he corrected himself, “I’m going to miss everything about it, frankly, right down to the Blackberry. I have just loved absolutely every second of it. Every second of it.”