A Discussion with Dean Billingsley

Barbara Billingsley reflects on her first seven months as Dean of Law.

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Following a career in civil litigation and 19 years as a full-time faculty member in the Faculty of Law, Barbara Billingsley was named Dean of the Faculty of Law effective July 1, 2020. We met with Dean Billingsley to learn about her work in the faculty so far, and her plans for its future.

What attracted you to the opportunity to lead the Faculty of Law at the U of A?

My roots run deep with this Faculty, and it seemed like a logical progression to take a leadership role. I am invested in the Faculty's history, legacy, and its place in the legal community. I did my undergraduate degree in the Faculty of Arts and I did all of my legal academic training in the Faculty of Law. After practising law in Edmonton, I decided to turn to academia. I have been a professor here for about 20 years. When the position of dean became available, I was attracted to the idea of helping lead the next iteration of the Faculty in training new lawyers, building the legal community, and solidifying the Faculty's reputation and role as an excellent educator of lawyers in Canada.

What has been one of the most memorable experiences of your career so far?

When I was practising law, I had the opportunity to come back to the U of A and teach as a sessional instructor. I had never done any teaching before, but I walked out of that first class thinking, this is a career path I want to pursue. I enjoyed the practice of law but that teaching moment was such a turning point for me. I love being in the classroom and I love engaging with students.

Of course, being offered the opportunity to serve as the Faculty's dean is also very memorable, and the support I received from my colleagues is very meaningful to me. 

What have been some highlights from your first seven months as Dean?

It has been inspiring to watch our faculty and staff adapt to the work that we have had to do to continue to bring top quality legal education to our students during the pandemic. I am so proud of what everyone in our Faculty has been able to achieve. 

On a more personal level, this new role has afforded me the opportunity and necessity of getting to know many more of my colleagues across campus. Part of my role is to participate in the university's administration and it has been interesting to see the university in a larger context. 

There have been a lot of concerns about EDI across campus, and our Faculty is not exempt from these concerns. As dean I have been listening and educating myself, and using this opportunity to consider how our program can better meet the needs of everyone. It has been exciting to watch EDI initiatives unfold within our Faculty, including our students forming the Faculty's first Black Law Students Association

What are some of your plans for the rest of your first year as dean?

Working on EDI initiatives and consulting with students will be an ongoing process for me and for our Faculty as a whole. Some current initiatives include increasing scholarships and financial support for Black and Indigenous students. The Faculty is also looking at expanding our recruitment efforts in ways that will connect more fully with students, and finding ways to make the Faculty more welcoming so that all students feel that they belong here. 

In the immediate term, my priority is continuing to ensure our students receive the top quality legal education they came here for, even though we're delivering that education remotely in this unexpected pandemic context, and to ensure that faculty, staff and students feel supported as we all continue to adapt to current circumstances. I want to make sure that the students graduating this year leave with full confidence that the education they have received has prepared them for practising law every bit as well as an in-person experience would have done. 

I also want to take the next few months to expand opportunities for connecting with alumni and for bringing the Faculty into the legal community. Now that the plan for academic restructuring is in place, I can turn my attention to reconnecting with alumni and letting them know about the good work we're doing in the Faculty. 

What opportunities do you see for your Faculty when it becomes part of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities?

The shape and role of the colleges is still being worked out, but there are two things the Faculty of Law can look forward to.

First, the college structure provides an opportunity for a lot of thought and work to be done on various aspects of EDI and, when that work gets done across Faculties, we can tap into a diverse range of relevant knowledge and experience. Second, there may be increased opportunities for scholars to do collaborative work. For example, the Faculty of Law has scholars working with anti-racism, equality, and justice issues, and I know there are many scholars working in business, education, and arts doing work in anti-racism and critical race theory, so this is an opportunity for scholars across these disciplines to work together on important issues. It's also an opportunity for the Faculty of Law  to connect with a pool of undergraduate students who might be interested in studying law. Our students come from a wide range of disciplines, but a good portion of them do come from social sciences and humanities, so it gives us a chance to connect with those students earlier and to determine how we can make ourselves relevant to those students.

What does it mean to you that you are the first woman to be appointed Dean of Law at the U of A?

Note: Anne McLellan was appointed acting dean from 1991-92; Dean Billingsley is the first full appointment.

The most significant thing about being called the "first" of anything is that it implies that there will be a second, a third, and ultimately there will be a point where there's no reason to count anymore because it's so ordinary. I am proud to hold that door open to start this process.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Spending time with my family is always a priority for me, and it doesn't matter what we're doing. I also like to travel, read, play piano, cook, bake, and walk in the river valley.