This past week there were two notable celebrations of the life and work of Ian Kerr. First, Jotwell published a remarkable tribute featuring 12 short reviews of some of Ian’s most notable scholarship. The collection speaks both to Ian’s breadth of scholarship covering privacy, copyright, e-commerce, robots, and AI as well as his incredible impact with contributors from around the world. I was privileged to wrote about Ian’s 2005 chapter on digital rights management and anti-circumvention laws.
On Friday, September 27th, the University of Ottawa gathered together for a community celebration of Ian. The full video is embedded below. The event included musical performances and speeches from former students, colleagues, collaborators, and admirers. I was honoured to speak and I have posted my remarks below. The event also provided an opportunity to formally launch the Ian R. Kerr Memorial Fund, which will support students, events, and research. More information on the fund and how to contribute can be found here.
Ian Kerr Celebration Remarks
As many of you will know, after Ian passed away last month, I published a tribute to him and created a podcast featuring some of his committee, media, and conference appearances. My hope was simple: convey to the world how I saw my friend and law school partner of nearly twenty years.
I wanted his former students to think about what an exceptional teacher he was with an uncanny ability to humanize the law, to make students think and rethink issues, and to bring out their very best in an accessible, welcoming environment.
I wanted to people to remember that Ian was writing and thinking about machines, robots, and AI years before the issues hit the mainstream.
I wanted share his remarkable leadership and vision for creating a world-class program in law and technology, his research initiatives such as the ID Trail, and his innovative cross-cultural educational programs like Techno-Rico.
I wanted policy makers and politicians to reflect on Ian’s commitment to reform and willingness to speak truth to power: his campaign against killer robots, his appearances before House of Commons committees on privacy, his keynote addresses around the world, and his scholarship bursting recommendations and policy proposals that would ultimately make their way into the law.
I wanted everyone to smile when thinking of Ian – whether for love of music, his drumming, his challahs, his robots, his pizza and his bets involving pizza.
Most of all, I wanted to bring to the fore Ian’s warmth, generosity, mentorship, collaborative spirt, and genuine love for his colleagues, students, and family.
What I didn’t count on – what I didn’t even think about – were the responses that would follow. I saw and experienced just a part of Ian. In fact, I must admit that there were moments in our relationship that I had forgotten and which only came back in the days and weeks after his passing. Our joint conference travels to places such as Israel and Hong Kong. Our fundraising roadshows with then Dean Bruce Feldthusen and Vincent Gautrais when we set about to convince Canada’s leading law firms on the possibility of a tech law centre at the University of Ottawa. The speech he delivered on my behalf many years ago for an award that I had won. I honestly don’t remember the award but I remember the speech. His support on grant applications and grad student reviews and course development and advocacy strategy and so much more.
But even more revealing were the shared stories that came from down the hall and from around the globe from people who had seen and experienced their own part of Ian.
The Supreme Court justices who spoke of Ian’s brilliance and impact on the profession.
The government ministers who talked about their admiration for Ian and his impact on Canadian law and policy.
Entire faculties from around the world, who took the time to write. For example, numerous faculty at Tilburg University in the Netherlands combined send me a condolence card noting that “despite distance in space or time, Ian felt like a close colleague. One of our most cherished memories in academic life is an identity trail workshop Ian co-organized with the research groups from Ottawa, Bologna, and Tilburg, involving deep discussions of identity, privacy, and life in a beautiful open-air setting on a hill near Bologna.”
There were the many communities around the world who saw Ian as one of theirs and mourned his loss. These included the global privacy community, the global advocacy community on killer robots, and the global AI and robot law community. In each case, superstars in the field feeling a kinship with Ian and lamenting the enormity of his absence.
Closer to home, the colleague who said that Ian was the reason they had joined the faculty and moved to Ottawa.
The many students – some now professors – who said he was the reason they had come to law school.
Similarly, the many students who emphasized his impact once at law school. For example, one noted “I would not be the person I am today if it had not been for his guidance. He played such a powerful role in the lives of so many of us blessed to have known him.”
The astonishing number of students and colleagues from his days at Western – now decades later – who remember Ian’s presence and impact like it was yesterday.
The childhood friends, who reminisced about a curly-haired energetic kid that was super-smart, comfortable in his own skin, and a good friend to all.
The academics who credited Ian with being an inspiration, noting that he was first to give them the confidence and freedom to chart their own path and to be themselves.
The professor who when asked to name the kindest person on Twitter, said it would have been Ian.
The professor who upon being congratulated for winning one of the biggest awards you can get, responded that they wished they could tell our Ian.
The numerous colleagues who talked about Ian’s incredible mentorship – whether assisting junior faculty on their arrival at the law school, more senior ones navigate tenure and promotion, and well-established faculty members who regularly relied on Ian for advice, guidance, and support.
One person noted that Ian had a “limitless ability to connect. He seemed to have a different set of inside jokes with each of us.” Indeed, it was that deeply personal connection with so many people that has left so many with a gratitude for the privilege of having known him, but also an aching sadness that he is gone.
In my own case, I think back to a November 2001 conference hosted by Duke University on the public domain. Ian and I travelled together to that conference, the first of many of such opportunities. It was a heady time for us – we were two young professors amidst many of the stars of the field. But what I remember most about the event was sitting together during the one of the lectures, listening intently but also watching two students in the row in front of us multitask with active chat back and forth on their computers.
I realize that this sounds completely unremarkable by today’s standards. Our classrooms are filled with these kinds of conversations. But at that time, I recall we were amazed at the quiet, seemingly non-ending electronic conversation. We would ultimately emulate that approach, regularly chatting back and forth in meetings and invariably turning to one another whenever some new development would strike. I can’t tell you how many times in recent weeks I’ve seen something on the news or on Twitter or on an email list and my very first instinct is to think to send it to Ian for his reaction. Each time I have to catch myself and be reminded yet again that I can’t do that anymore. That our non-ending conversation has come to an end.
As for so many, this is really hard. During some of the hardest moments, rather than thinking of loss, I’ve tried to think more positively about Ian’s legacy.
We talk about his legacy in several ways. Today’s event has been a celebration of his legacy and his contributions to science, privacy, the university, his students, and his colleagues.
Sometimes the legacy speaks to his incredible family and his impact on the lives of so many. I’ve found some comfort in thinking about that legacy, losing count at the number of times I’ve read and re-read the comments online and in emails or re-watched speeches as he proudly talked about Erin and Ruby.
Ian’s scholarship leaves an incredible legacy, perhaps best illustrated by the commemoration of Ian’s work published on Jotwell this week in which scholars from around the world came together to write about their favourite Ian pieces.
Adam spoke earlier about the Ian Kerr Memorial Fund, a legacy fund that we hope that will facilitate student scholarships, law school events, and cutting edge research in Ian’s name.
But Ian’s biggest legacy may come from something else. One of our colleagues recently observed to me that there has been a noticeable change in the hallways of the law school over the past month. As we each grapple with the loss of Ian, there is also a renewed sense of community: colleagues taking more time to stop in the hallway to say hello, people dropping into each other’s offices to make sure they’re ok or more actively engaging with each other, students, and staff.
I’d like to think that that is Ian’s legacy, as this giant of a man left behind a small part of himself in each of us. It’s that part that reminds us to be generous with our time, to give without expecting something in return, to mentor others, to laugh heartily, to welcome newcomers, to strive for world-class excellence, to express appreciation easily and frustration rarely, to fight for what we believe in, and to take great pride in our students, our colleagues, and our community. I believe that is Ian’s truest legacy and I deeply believe that it will live on in us all.