Ron Daniels, responsible for six-figure student debt, receives honorary law degree

U of T law grads protest

Any lawyer will tell you that you are in big trouble when you need a retired Supreme Court of Canada judge to defend your case, and the big guns certainly came out to applaud and defend Ron Daniels at the University of Toronto June 6.

Despite protests and a petition from past grads and the class that graduated that day, Daniels received his honorary doctor of laws. With law tuition now at over $30,000 per year, the University of Toronto’s fees are the highest at any Canadian law school.

Ron Daniels was Dean of the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law from 1995 to 2005 when tuition increased threefold to $12,000 by 2002 (after professional schools were de-regulated by the province in 1998). He also approved a plan to hike fees to $22,000 by 2007.

When Ron Daniels stepped up to the podium to accept his honorary degree, he knew that he was facing a graduating class that rallied against sky-high tuition. It’s a barrier to accessing legal education and a barrier to practicing law in the community, as opposed to on Bay Street or Wall Street just to pay the six-figure debt of school loans.

The 2014 graduating class is the most indebted in the history of the law school. Tuition debts in the six-figure range are the new normal. Compounding the problem, the professional governing body, the Law Society of Upper Canada, has numbers indicating that 15 per cent of graduating law students (and the number continues to grow) will not get an entry-level articling position, never mind a corporate position. Any proposed solutions (such as a much-lauded “back-end debt relief” program designed to help graduates repay loans) to lessen the impact of the debt loads have proven to be mostly illusory in the years since the tuition hikes were implemented. The impact on the accessibility of a legal education, the inclusiveness of the legal community and access to justice for the public has been significant. Without a doubt, affordable legal education in Canada died on Ron Daniels’ watch.

With this in mind a group of alumni of the law school reacted negatively to the news that the architect of this disaster was to address the graduating class of 2014 as the honorary graduate. Standing in solidarity with the class of 2014, whose previous protests to the U of T administration had fallen on deaf ears, over 100 alumni signed a petition, requesting that Daniels defend his legacy of dramatic increases to the cost of a legal education. Alumni also sent individual letters to the Faculty of Law, and the U of T president and provost, expressing dismay at the insensitivity of this choice. These alumni included articling students, named partners in law firms, crown attorneys and corporate executives. Alumni are important, or so we are told when the university is looking for donations, yet neither the petition nor the letters received even a basic response.

Fast-forward to the ceremony itself, where the debt load elephant in the room was blithely ignored by all of the speakers except for a passing reference by former law dean, Mayo Moran, uttered so quickly that one could have blinked and missed it.

When it came time to introduce Daniels, retired Supreme Court Justice, Frank Iacobucci, positively sang his praises from the podium to a sea of stone-faced students, many wearing bright yellow buttons on their graduation gowns. The button campaign was organized by a group of student leaders as a way of drawing attention to the tuition issue – a silent but effective protest.

Daniels himself spoke about the challenges involved in global development ducking the issue entirely. He started his speech with an “amusing” anecdote about how a few hundred dollars in library fines almost stopped him from receiving his BA. Thanks in large part to him new law grads will pay 1000 times that for the privilege of obtaining their law degree.

To say I was feeling bleak about my profession was an understatement. There was no balanced discussion, no basic acknowledgment of alternative views that perhaps Daniels’ legacy was a complicated one particularly to the graduates themselves. It was a self-congratulatory back-slapping day for the guy who many would say had made it to the big leagues on the backs of successive generations of law students.

When the first graduate walked up to the stage proudly wearing her yellow button her courage meant that the debt issue was staring them straight in the face now. And so it was with most of the graduating class the waves of students standing up to speak truth to power.

Chancellor Wilson in his closing remarks invoked what he calls “the platinum rule” in life. “Always leave a situation better than you found it.” Whether Daniels left U of T a better place than he found it is a matter of far more debate than was given credence by the administration at this year’s graduation ceremony. However, by speaking truth to power on the final day of their education at U of T law school there is no debate whatsoever that the class of 2014 most certainly has tried to follow that rule. | @nowtoronto

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