Dean Marrus Goes to Law School

By Brad Faught

From the Fall/Winter 2005 issue of Nexus.

Dean Michael MarrusNot everyday is it that a graduate school dean sends a letter of admission to himself. But such was the letter that landed on the desk of Michael Marrus in the spring of 2004. Approaching the end of seven years spent as head of the University of Toronto's School of Graduate Studies, Marrus gave himself official notification that after almost forty years as a distinguished historian of modern France and of the Holocaust he would be going back to school. Only this time the destination would not be the history stacks, but rather Flavelle House. He had enrolled in the Faculty of Law's Master of Studies in Law (MSL) program, a degree aimed at scholars of any discipline with a desire for a year's worth of formal legal education capped by a research project.

"I loved it," is how Marrus answers a question about his year spent at the law school as we chat casually in his book-lined study at Massey College where he is currently a Senior Resident. As dean of the graduate school Marrus had dealt, on many occasions, with disciplinary and other issues that exposed him closely to the legal process. He liked what he saw, and moreover, much of his academic work as a member of U of T's history department as the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies had led him over the years to investigate events such as the watershed Nuremberg Trials held to try Nazi war criminals after the Second World War, as well as more recently to sit on the Vatican's now-dissolved commission of Jewish and Christian historians that looked at the Church's position during Germany's Nazi period. There was also the matter of "the road not taken," he remarks in reference to his father having been a Toronto lawyer but his own departure from family tradition by pursuing a Ph.D. (at Berkeley) in order to become a professional historian. Altogether, as Marrus contemplated what he might do next as his deanship wound down, and administrative leave beckoned, he was determined to "strike off in a new direction." And so in September 2004, having changed from the requisite dean's attire of jacket and tie, to the student uniform of jeans and backpack (OK, the briefcase wasn't, in fact, jettisoned), Marrus slid into a seat in Professor Ernie Weinrib's first year Torts class, among others.

And just like any other first year student, Marrus wrote his outlines, read his cases, and took his exams, the latter being the most "uncomfortable and daunting" part of the entire experience. But studying the law proved irresistible. "Once I was into the courses," says Marrus with great animation, "they took command. The intellectual issues are powerful. It was a new way of thinking." The way of thinking may have been new, but he says with a chuckle, his own style didn't change much. "As usual, I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I asked a lot of questions." Later, I ask Ernie Weinrib for a comment on Marrus's penchant for voluble participation: "Whenever Michael participated in class discussion in Torts, it was evident that he both spoke and thought in completely formed paragraphs." That's what a lifetime of teaching and writing history will do for a person, I guess.

But classroom eloquence is not the same thing as the daily reading load and grinding work of a law student. Marrus took his notes longhand rather than use a computer - an increasingly rare sight in many university classes - had a study partner, who, conveniently, was subletting an apartment in Marrus's house, and stored his collection of weighty text books in a basement locker at the law school. He also worked on his research project, a study of the fairly recent phenomenon of government apologies for historic wrongs against various peoples. But like any other student he did his homework religiously - it's a demanding cycle - but one that he found exhilarating, or, as he puts it: "fabulous," "great," and "terrific."

The particularity of Marrus's position as a former university dean going back to school is not likely to become common, but what is becoming a more common sight on post-secondary campuses across Canada is the older student who has decided to change gears mid-career, add something of value, or indeed to go in a different direction altogether. Part of this phenomenon is the changing nature of the contemporary career track, but even more important is the current demographic shift, as investigated by U of T economist and demographer, David Foot. For example, in Canada and elsewhere in the post-industrial world, this shift means an older workforce and a push to make retirement an elastic event. "Since completing the MSL program I have been approached by a number of people who are considering doing the same thing," says Marrus. And as Kaye Joachim, Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies at the law school, remarks, the law school is eagerly receptive to this new reality, especially as it affects scholars: "The MSL is a program designed for scholars who wish to acquire a knowledge of law in order to add a legal dimension to scholarship in their own discipline." To this end, Marrus's colleagues in the program were Michal Schwartz, a linguistics and literature professor from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who undertook the MSL in order to examine closely the relationship between ethics and law, and Dr. Cathy Popadiuk, a professor of medicine from Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, who entered the program with a view to helping physicians respond better to the legal challenges facing their profession.

The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial 1945-46: A Documentary HistoryAfter Marrus's exciting year at Flavelle House and Falconer Hall, what comes next? In January, he'll commence teaching a course called "Great Trials in History" for U of T's history department in which he'll examine, among others, the Nuremberg Trials (about which he authored a book in 1997, The Nuremberg War Crimes Trial 1945-46: A Documentary History), as well as the infamous Dreyfus Case, which exposed systemic anti-Semitism in late nineteenth and early twentieth century France. As well, his research into apologies continues, and he plans to be involved in some collaborative projects with faculty members at the law school. But don't expect him to be handling corporate mergers and acquisitions anytime soon, he laughs. Still, Michael Marrus's year long paper chase was well worth the effort. "I loved it!" he repeats. Yes, I think that message is unmistakable.