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Exit interview with Harriet Lewis

York’s university secretary and general counsel reflects on a challenging career.


With this installment, University Affairs launches the first in an occasional series of interviews with senior staff and faculty members who are about to retire or depart from an institution.

We begin with Harriet Lewis, the longtime general counsel and university secretary at York University. But Ms. Lewis’s ties to York date back much further – to her days as an undergraduate student. She received both a bachelor and master of arts in English at York. She went on to earn a law degree from the University of Toronto, was called to the bar in 1977 and spent more than a decade in private practice. The native of Medicine Hat, Alberta was appointed York’s university counsel in 1988 and, in addition, university secretary in 1998. Over her 26 years at York, Ms. Lewis has dealt with a wide array of legal matters during a time of rapid growth. She will retire on June 30.

Since you joined York as legal counsel in 1988, what changes have you seen that have affected your job?

I had the privilege of being [York’s] first general counsel; there was no structure in place to attend to the legal issues of the university. Our society was becoming more legalistic. The Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] was relatively new and people were tending to put things in terms of rights and responsibilities as opposed to obligations that arose out of some other kind of moral or ethical principle. We were entering into a period of growth and that involved construction and building and, for the first time ever, selling a piece of land. We had recognized for the first time that our relationship with the students was becoming more legalistic, that they were now seeing themselves more as consumers. We also had to look at issues around their discipline and what was fair in the circumstances. We didn’t have rules and regulations in place for that because the relationship had been so different [previously]. At that time there were only a couple of other universities in Canada that had counsel in the university actually practising law.

Do many now?

Many, many more do now. When I came here, going in-house was considered a step down in a way. People did it for personal circumstances as I did; I had two young children. But now it’s considered a plum. So many people would like to do it because you aren’t a specialist. You become a generalist at a very high level so you learn and experience so many different kinds of law.

What are some of the more challenging files you’ve worked on?

The ones that involve unhappy people are always extremely challenging. … Students who are not achieving success or staff members who are not finding their way as successful employees within the institution, and that includes faculty. Or people who have illness and can’t function within the strictures imposed by this kind of environment. Those are the complicated cases because nobody wants to see somebody fail in any way, nobody wants to see the institution become a litigant and nobody wants to say bad things about others, but by the same token, sometimes you have to be hardnosed. There are many challenges around a university that’s growing quickly and becoming an active participant in building the city around it. I wasn’t a real estate lawyer when I came here but I think I’m not a bad real estate lawyer now.

York, and this is probably true of most universities, has seen a lot of turmoil. There have been long faculty strikes, tensions over the Palestinian-Israeli question, vigorous debates about academic freedom. Did these impact your work?

Absolutely. We’ve had three strikes since I’ve been counsel, two of them when I was the secretary of the university. [A strike] is essentially a legal action. We had to look at the academic term and figure out how to best accommodate our students, given their inability to attend class during the strike. Strikes are devastating to the institution. It’s something I’m hoping, and I believe, that everyone now recognizes. We’ve had three class-action lawsuits arising out of those strikes by students who felt that they lost something and felt that the university was responsible for it. None of them have gone forward. The oversight of that litigation was my responsibility.

I wonder if we can talk about the sexual assaults that took place and more recently the death of a York student. That’s got to be very difficult.

Of course. The student who was killed was not technically a student at the time nor was she on campus. But notwithstanding, she was adjacent to campus and had been a student, so obviously the world sees that as having to do with York. I know people here felt very devastated by it and frightened by it. Justice has now been done. York supported the family throughout. That’s all one can do in these very difficult situations.

York launched legal action against Toronto Life magazine over its reporting on the sexual assaults. I know the case was settled earlier this year. But why did York feel that it needed to take that action?

We felt that their reportage was not accurate and that at some point, notwithstanding our natural disinclination to take on issues publicly, that a line had to be drawn in the sand with the press and with Toronto Life specifically around their characterization of York within its environment and the environment within York. That particular article, we didn’t feel, paid sufficient respect to what the environment was like at this university and exaggerated the level of safety or lack thereof at the institution. They hadn’t done their homework. We all believe that one should have discussions about these issues but when a publication goes over a certain line and really is inflammatory and publishes their article in a way that will damage the reputation of the institution without proper factual basis, then we are entitled to draw that line and in that unusual case, we did.

Looking into the future, what legal issues do you think all universities will have to deal with?

The issue of how we govern ourselves is something that we are going to have to come to terms with. How we see our relationship with our students, our relationship with government, and the autonomy of the institution within that. I think we’re being pushed more and more to prepare our students for the job market. I think that’s a change that doesn’t accord with how we see ourselves and how we govern ourselves. I think that deserves a great public debate.

I think the need to become more corporate-like and business-like and stray around the edges of our charitable purposes is a great pressure on institutions now, as funds become so hard to get. Universities are looking for ways to make money. I worry that the sense that we have to be always more innovative and entrepreneurial may at some point come too close to the edge of our charitable status and we may have to stop and ask ourselves what we’re really up to.

I think the question of leadership going forward will be an issue … speaking of the presidents and the senior vice-presidents. It requires a level of personal exposure and dedication to the task without the benefit of the respect that used to be accorded to people is these positions. … I think [that] is going to be a problem for recruitment in the future.

The whole notion of what the university’s role is in the research endeavour and the issues around wanting research to be licensed raises problems. The university’s relationship to the business world has always been an issue that we have had to think through carefully as a charity and as a fiduciary body and as a body that’s supposed to be focusing the creation of knowledge.

And there are always labour relation issues. The role of the union within the academy is one that is causing great strain, not just at York but everywhere, especially when money is tight. I don’t personally think that university professors are overpaid. But I think that unless we resolve the financing of universities in a more coherent and logical way and deal with the tuition versus government grant issues more intelligently, the best and brightest aren’t going to choose academic careers.

As you mentioned, you have also served as university secretary since 1998. Can you talk the relationship between university boards and senates? Is there are inherent tension between the two?

There are issues that create tension between them. We’ve seen that in situations of labour unrest, specifically strikes. We’ve also seen it when decisions are being made that the academy feels deeply uncomfortable with, this is playing out a bit in Saskatchewan right now.

Both [boards and senates] are essential to the functioning of the university. They have their own individual responsibilities and then they have things where they must consult or concur with one another, the selection of the president being one. … I think that once you start to talk about what these people have in common, which is the mission of the institution, and you introduce them to each other as human beings, and you give them a clear sense of their roles and responsibilities, they more or less almost always do the right thing by each other.

What are your plans for the future?

I’m going to take a little bit of time for R&R. I will help out over the fall to take my successor [Maureen Armstrong] through a governance cycle. I’m an alum of York so I’m sure I will continue to have some sort of relationship with it. You can’t spend 26 years at an institution as exciting and confusing and wonderful as York without having met an awful lot of people who you care about.

What will you miss most about your job?

I’ll miss the excitement of never knowing what the day will bring. I’ll miss the completion of a number of things that are on the go here. But I believe strongly that people who have had what I have had in their career should get to the point where they make way for others.

Rosanna Tamburri
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  1. Rein Peterson / May 26, 2014 at 12:03

    Harriet …

    Thank-you for all your help (a long time ago now).

    I too am retired and advising the Dean at Ryerson to keep the cobwebs down.



  2. Vicki Hodgkinson / March 4, 2015 at 12:44

    Thank you to University Affairs for capturing and sharing this valuable exchange with Harriet who — while a wonderful leader for York University — has been an equally wise and generous leader among her University Secretary colleagues from across the country.

    With many good wishes for Harriet as she approaches retirement….as well as sincere thanks and congratulations for all the contributions she has made to the Canadian university sector,

    Vicki Hodgkinson
    University Secretary
    University of Guelph

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