Born in London, Ont., Harding would attend Montreal’s McGill University for her undergrad before earning her LLB from Schulich in 1989. On Aug. 21, the law school announced that Harding, after nearly three decades working in the United States, had returned to her alma mater as dean.
Harding, a career educator, will be at the helm for five years, succeeding Camille Cameron, who had been dean since 2015.
In a recent interview with Law360 Canada, Harding talked diversity, post-pandemic schooling, artificial intelligence and how the school’s abiding credo of socially responsible lawyering will help guide her.
Sarah Harding, Dalhousie University
“This is a return for me — back to Dalhousie after many years in the [U.S] — so I’m excited to back at the Schulich School of Law and I’m excited to be back in Nova Scotia and I’m excited to be back in Canada,” said Harding, who before accepting the Schulich job spent 27 years at the Chicago-Kent College of Law in Illinois.
Harding acknowledged she comes to the job post-pandemic and touched on lessons learned from the “dramatic transformations” that schools endured during COVID-19 lockdowns.
While Schulich is back to 100-per cent in-person learning, there remains a need to continue to “rebuild and reacquaint the community with its strengths as an organization,” said Harding.
But the pandemic also taught school administrators the need for flexibility.
“There is certainly flexibility for students to participate remotely in some circumstances. I’m not [yet] fully … tuned in to all of the different policies about hybrid or what if anything professors have prohibited or permitted to do in terms of their teaching. … [But] I think we’re back to trying as much as possible to encourage the in-person engagement.”
Harding touched on Schulich’s evolution when it comes to turning an eye toward the African Nova Scotian experience, including the province’s unique history of anti-Black racism.
Last year, Schulich launched a five-day mandatory course for first-year students on racism and discrimination faced by Black people in the province, as well as in Canada.
Harding lauded the school’s commitment in this area — and not just when it comes to Black residents, but to Indigenous people and other marginalized groups as well.
“These are some of the reasons why I found this opportunity very appealing. What the school was doing here I think goes above and beyond what most other institutions are doing in terms of addressing the needs of diverse populations and really focusing on teaching our students how to be culturally competent. Because this is the world they are going to practise in — it’s a professional obligation.”
Harding was imbued with this sense of social responsibility during her time as a student at Schulich, where she became a part of the law school’s “Weldon Tradition” constituency.
Named after Richard Chapman Weldon, Schulich’s founding dean, it holds the view that lawyers have an obligation to use their skills for positive social change.
“It’s just part of the DNA of this institution. It’s a basic guiding principle of the organization. Deeply part of its culture. … It’s something that is imbued in terms of your experience here as a student — the importance of unselfish public service.”
This, Harding said, can be seen the Dalhousie Legal Aid Service, as well as students’ participation in the law school’s pro bono program.
“I think it’s incumbent on legal educators to help form lawyers who understand that they have civic duties,” said Harding. “This is a responsibility to society as part of the privilege of being a lawyer. My respect for that tradition, my belief in it … will certainly inform my leadership.”
As for artificial intelligence, Harding confirmed the school has no official policy on its use by students. Instead, faculty members can draw from “guiding principles” to help them judge what is best for their classes.
“Current faculty are encouraged to consider how they might want to permit or prohibit students from using AI as a learning and/or an assessment tool,” Harding said. “Some … may see advantages to fully integrating AI into the learning and assessment process; some may wish to permit students to use it as a learning tool but require students to clearly produce work of equivalent academic value without the use of AI tools; some may wish to be far more restrictive. Right now, faculty are encouraged to be clear about what the rules of engagement are for the classroom. To be clear about their approach to students, [and] their rationale for that approach. … [And] students may also be asked to participate in a discussion to refine that approach.”
Harding’s home is now a condo in Halifax. She has a partner and three grown children. None of her kids, them being “predominantly creative types,” have gone into law, she said.
During her off hours, Harding stays active — she runs, cross-country skis, gardens and, until her move back to Canada, kept bees.
The beekeeping began as a lockdown hobby.
“I started during the pandemic,” said Harding, who uses a protective suit and face shield. “I built a hive, acquired my first colony … and went and started that process. … It’s tough. It’s tough to keep those little bees alive during the winter. But, for me, I loved the focus of building the hive and learning something entirely new.”
Due to now being in a condo unit, with only a balcony, beekeeping is on hold until Harding can find a place to keep a hive. She called beekeeping a relaxing, “zen-like” activity.
“You have to be very calm around bees — that’s a very good thing.”
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