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Ryerson’s new dean sets building admissions, hiring faculty as priorities

Tuesday, December 17, 2019 @ 10:32 AM | By Amanda Jerome

The appointment as the founding dean of Ryerson University’s new Faculty of Law is more than just a job to Donna Young; it’s an opportunity to come home.

“Toronto really is home,” said Young, who has spent the last 26 years living in the United States but came back to her hometown every summer and spent winter vacations in Toronto grading papers at her parents’ kitchen table.

Ryerson announced Young’s appointment in a press release Dec. 16, lauding her as “an experienced leader who shares the university’s commitment to innovation, diversity, and access.” Her tenure at the school will begin on Jan. 1, 2020.

Young, a first generation Canadian born of parents from Jamaica and Belize, was raised in North York and did her undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto and studied law at Osgoode Hall. She worked in litigation at Toronto’s Cornish Roland Barristers & Solicitors as well as the Ontario Human Rights Commission before moving across the border to work with the Legal Department of the City of New York Mayor's Office of Labor Relations.

The new dean told The Lawyer’s Daily that it’s an “exciting moment to open a law school in Canada that is dedicated to social justice.”

“My vision is really to get a strong group of faculty members, and students, and diverse community to provide resources to the population in Ontario and elsewhere. And I am absolutely thrilled that I can be part of this,” she said.

Donna Young, founding dean of Ryerson University’s new Faculty of Law.

Young said law schools, and the legal academy in general, in Canada are “world class,” stressing that her studies in Toronto gave her “the best education I could possibly have.”

“The University of Toronto’s law school and Osgoode are sources of inspiration, really, and they are also dedicated to social justice,” she said, adding that the way Ryerson will stand out from the pack is that social justice is a part of its core mission from its inception.

“And because it’s a new law school, it has flexibility and the ability to start from scratch and build a program that really makes that the core of everything that it does. That, and technological innovation, and an incredible curriculum too. It’s a very different curriculum. It is a curriculum that would allow students to graduate after three years and go immediately into practising law, or into doing the kinds of work that they want to do,” she said, adding that “there’s room for three law schools in Toronto.”

Young has experience working at other schools as she’s transitioning from her role as a President William McKinley distinguished professor of law and public policy at Albany Law School in New York. According to a press release she also holds a joint appointment at the University at Albany’s Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, where her work focuses on criminal and employment law, federal civil procedure and gender and race studies.

Her other academic roles include being a fellow at Cornell Law School’s Gender, Sexuality and Family Project and a visiting scholar at Osgoode Hall Law School’s Institute of Feminist Legal Studies. She was a consultant at the International Development Law Organization in Rome and a visiting scholar at the Faculty of Law at the University Roma Tre. She has also worked on development projects in Sri Lanka, Uganda and Mexico.

In her experience, she has found that the most satisfying and successful projects have “always been in a collaborative mode.”

“I feel very strongly about this; the dean does not ever operate on her own,” she stressed about her new role, adding one of her goals from the very beginning will be collaboration.

“Collaboration with the rest of the departments and faculties at Ryerson, first and foremost, and collaboration with the legal community. And growing some really strong ties, and collaboration with the legal academy in Canada and the United States. I’m very familiar with the academy in the United States and I would love to learn more and become part of a really strong cohort of the academy in Canada too,” she said, adding she believes in “shared governance.”

Young believes that all parts of a university and a law school have a central role to play in governing the Faculty of Law, so she’s excited to work with Ryerson’s faculty association to put together a program that is “going to be world class very, very shortly.”

Young’s first priorities are: to meet the people who made Ryerson’s law school come to fruition; build admissions; and grow the faculty.

“There have been some really important people who have been working behind the scenes to make this all happen and I haven’t met all of them,” she said, adding her “first goal is to go around and meet the folks who are responsible for all of this.”

In the longer term, she said the school has to build up student admissions.

“I think our future students are what is going to define us in many ways, and we are going to need them to bring our mission and vision to the legal community and to serving Ontario. So, admissions are really, really important,” she stressed, adding that a call has been put out for faculty and the hiring process is a top priority.

“The program and the curriculum is going to grow with the help of the faculty and I want to facilitate that. I don’t want to control it, it’s something that comes from the faculty, and we’ve got such a strong team right now that I’m really confident we’re going to have an amazing program,” she explained, noting a long-term project is to find programs at Ryerson that could be integrated into the law school.

Young knows there will be challenges ahead, but she doesn’t see anything as “insurmountable or as problematic with such a strong team.”

“I’m just really committed to making this work. For 26 years, I’ve been very student focused. The curriculum that I have put together and the educational opportunities that I have wanted for my students have been my top priorities. I care deeply about my students. The students who I am leaving at Albany Law will be incredibly missed. They give joy to my life and so, for the students who are coming to Ryerson, I just want to say that they will be absolutely welcomed. We will do what we can to give them the best educational program that they’re entitled to have, and we will facilitate their ability to use what they learn to meet the needs of the population of the public,” she said.

The new dean also noted that she is grateful to the legal community in Toronto, which has already contributed to Ryerson’s vision. She said she wants to show them that she’s heard them, wants to work with them, and make this school a success.

Young is known as an active member of the American Association of University Professors and, according to a press release, “has been invited to consult with faculties and administrators at institutions around the United States on matters involving faculty governance, academic freedom and due process, and the dynamics of gender and race on university campuses.” She holds a B.Sc. (Honours) in psychology from the University of Toronto, an LL.B. from Osgoode Hall Law School and an LL.M. from Columbia University School of Law, where she was also an associate in law.

Michael Benarroch, provost and vice-president, academic of Ryerson University, said in a statement that he is “delighted to welcome Donna to the Ryerson community and excited to see her vision for the Faculty of Law come to life.”

“Donna brings with her an incredible breadth of experience and expertise, and the university looks forward to reimagining the future of legal studies under her direction,” he added.

Although Young is returning to Toronto after a long absence to take on the position as dean, she said the city has always been with her.

“Returning home is enormously important to me,” she said, adding her son is living with his grandparents in Toronto already and this new role is “giving me the opportunity to come home.”

Photo by: Mitch Wojnarowicz

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