Challenge Accepted

Barabara Billingsley becomes Faculty of Law’s 13th dean during unnerving times

Helen Metella - 14 August 2020

Being the 13th dean to lead the Faculty of Law might have given Barbara Billingsley a tiny bit of pause given how tumultuous a year 2020 has become, but happily there’s an easy way around such superstitions.

If you count Anne McLellan, who was acting dean in 1991-1992, and David R. Percy, QC, who has just completed his second tour of duty (as interim dean from 2019 to 2020), Billngsley may actually be considered the 15th person to hold the deanship.

Still, there’s no denying that Billingsley assumes the role in an arduous era. The University of Alberta is dealing with the aftermath of two provincial budgets that are forcing it to strip $110 million dollars from its operation through 2021, to downsize itself academically and administratively in less than a year, and to prepare for another $100 million in cuts by the end of 2023. Then, there is the small matter of a still-raging global pandemic that has upended every norm of campus life, from in-person classes to office operations.

Also, in the month prior to Billingsley taking over the deanship, a historic flashpoint in centuries-old racial tensions has lit fires within societies worldwide. The Black Lives Matter movement and the deaths of numerous Indigenous Canadians during police actions are events that demand the Faculty’s immediate attention in relation to its teaching and scholarship regarding injustice, as well as to its obligation to avoid the perpetuation of racism in its internal operations.

When she applied for the position, the idea of collegial governance was top of Billingsley’s mind.

“My goal was to foster an environment where reciprocal goodwill exists among faculty, students and staff in regards to faculty policies and operations, and where individuals are confident that their role within the Faculty is respected, that their views are valued and that their input will be fairly considered,” she says.

“That objective remains especially important to me as the Faculty engages with the significant challenges it now faces.”

A former practising lawyer and a full-time professor with the Faculty since 2001, Billngsley is a UAlberta alumna who received a BA in political science in 1987 and her LLB and LLM from the Faculty of Law in 1990 and 1995, respectively. She practised civil litigation in Edmonton at Brownlee LLP and at Sharek & Co, and began teaching at the Faculty as a sessional in 1996.

She has taught insurance law, civil litigation and constitutional law. She has also served as the Faculty’s associate dean of research and of graduate studies.

“Barbara Billingsley is perfectly suited to leadership,” said Justice Russell Brown of the Supreme Court of Canada, a faculty colleague of hers at UAlberta law for several years before his appointment to the bench in 2015.

“She listens carefully, assesses fairly and reasonably, and acts with integrity.”

Billingsley is the author of General Principles of Canadian Insurance Law (LexisNexis) and a contributing co-editor of The Civil Litigation Process: Cases and Materials (Edmond). She has contributed to seven textbooks, authored numerous articles and spoken at some 60 conferences, seminars and guest lectures.

She’s received the Canadian Bar Association/Law Society of Alberta Award for Distinguished Scholarship, the University of Alberta’s Rutherford Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the Faculty of Law’s Hon. Tevie Miller Teaching Excellence Award.

In addition to such top-tier professional credentials, the new dean has long held the skills needed for the coming challenges, her peers say.

Justice June Ross of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta has known Billngsley as a student, a fellow faculty member and as “a valued member of the legal community we both care deeply about. She has always been open to new ideas, experiences and perspectives, and she is a natural teacher and leader, with a calm, collected and collaborative approach that will serve the Faculty well in these challenging times.”

Senator Paula Simons met Billingsley as a high school student, when both were members of the Alberta Debate and Speech Association. They became good friends while teammates at the University of Alberta Debate Club.

“The Barb I knew then was very much the same person she is today: thoughtful, measured, down-to-earth with a dry and sardonic sense of humour,” says Simons. “She looks for common-sense solutions to problems and applies a rapier-sharp analytical perspective to every question she encounters.”

Simons describes Billingsley as both private and straightforward. “She has little patience with hyperbole or melodrama. People are drawn to her because she radiates competence and calm.”

Her ties to UAlberta are also of the bedrock variety. She met her husband, lawyer Johnson Billingsley, ’88 LLB, to whom she’s been married for more than 30 years, at that same university debate club where she met Simons. Her son, Doug, and eldest daughter, Anne, are both UAlberta graduates while her youngest daughter, Jane, is currently enrolled in the Faculty of Arts.

Outside of work, Billingsley likes to spend as much time as possible with her family. Her other interests include travel, music reading and yoga. Additionally, she says, “In recent years, I have spent a significant amount of time researching my family’s Polish wartime history.”

As for how she hopes to guide a disparate community of students, professors and staff,

Billingsley will rely on an insight she developed while meeting a wide variety of people while both practising and teaching law.

“I have found that, whatever their specific approach, most people are genuinely doing their best to achieve a positive outcome. I think that this fundamental commonality of motivation and purpose to achieve a constructive result is a key element to remember in any group dynamic.”