Building on a great tradition

By Vera Jokic

Professor James Hathaway is not your typical Australian Law Dean – AUS-trained, Spanish-speaking Canadian educator and leading expert on international refugee law.

Professor James Hathaway did not hesitate when he was asked to become the Dean of Melbourne Law School in late 2007 after a short stint as a visiting scholar.

"I had admired the Law School from afar for its foresight in embracing graduate education. I knew it had a wonderful community of internationally acclaimed scholars, and if I were to take a major administrative role, I thought this is it", says Hathaway.

Hathaway's long career in Canadian and American law schools gave him a unique understanding of the transition the Law School and the University were making in their shift to the Melbourne Model. In addition, the move to Melbourne was attractive both professionally and personally.

"Melbourne has no snow – I'd had enough of North American winters – and Melbourne has a lively arts and entertainment scene. The Law School is also clearly at the top of its game domestically … I knew this was a great opportunity."

Today Hathaway leads a law school with 156 full-time staff and over 1600 students. But his journey to one of the most prestigious jobs in law academia has followed an unconventional path.

Hathaway spent his early school days in Calgary, Canada, before the Hathaway family moved to the US, where employment in the oil industry beckoned his father.

While his friends in Canada were learning French, Hathaway was studying Spanish in Texas. "I did some part-time interpreting work as a way of making money while I was a high-school student … and then I began studying French when I moved back to Canada at age 16," he says.

Law was not in his thoughts. Instead, with a passion for words and an analytical mind, he studied International Political Economy at McGill, Montreal. But fate intervened one Friday night.

"I was out with a group of friends and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) was being written the next day at 9 am. A friend dared me to write it. I took the exam and did quite well. Then the offers started coming in, including a scholarship. It sounds idealistic, but I saw the opportunity to study law as a means of doing something good in a concrete fashion. I'm a lapsed Catholic, and some might say social values were bred into me as a kid," Hathaway says.

Over the next few years, Hathaway carved himself a distinctive career. He undertook articles of clerkship at a prestigious Toronto law firm but abandoned commercial practice to set up a course teaching common law exclusively in French in a small town called Moncton, on Canada's east coast.

Canada's French-speaking population is a majority in just one province: Quebec. In the other nine provinces, French speakers are a minority and often discriminated against. The course helped to create a generation of Francophone advocates who could go back to their provinces and challenge the status quo.

An opportunity then arose to undertake postgraduate study at New York's Columbia University. Over the next 25 years, Hathaway lived between Canada and the US. He was Associate Dean of the Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, had two sabbaticals in California and, prior to joining Melbourne Law School, was the James E and Sarah A Degan Professor of Law and Director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law at the University of Michigan Law School.

As a leading authority on international refugee law, with work regularly cited by the most senior courts of the common law world, Hathaway continues to provide training on refugee law to academic, non-governmental and official audiences around the world.

An invitation from senior lecturer Dr Michelle Foster to teach in the Law School's Masters program brought him to Melbourne. At Michigan University, Hathaway supervised Foster on her doctoral thesis, which led to her ground-breaking book on socio-economic rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

It was during his time teaching in Melbourne that he was approached about the possibility of replacing the retiring Dean, Professor Michael Crommelin AO.

"The timing was right," Hathaway says. "Having taught for 25 years, I was at a stage in my career where I had benefited from the leadership of a number of deans.

"Michael Crommelin is the dean of law deans in Australia. He was an absolute path breaker … I think my role is to take up where Michael left off and to refine a brilliant program based on my international experience," Hathaway says.

Over the past year, Hathaway has continued to build links with respected international law schools, through the Association of Transnational Law Schools (ATLAS) and the Graduate Law Consortium, and programs such as the London-based Centre for Transnational Legal Studies, so that Melbourne's outstanding law students and academics can meet, work and study with the world's equivalent.

And there has been other new initiatives. The research capacity of the faculty has been enhanced, making it Australia's best research-supported law school with the aim of increasing the Law School's presence in the community.

"I want our law school to be engaged with the media, with shaping community debates. I also want to make our school visible on the national and international stages, as I think that's the best way of recruiting outstanding staff and students."

The Careers Office has also been revamped, becoming increasingly active with the addition of new appointments.

Hathaway is also developing good relationships with the Victorian College of Arts (VCA) and the Faculty of Music. VCA student art is displayed on a rotating basis in the new academic staff common room, and Hathaway has been working with the Ian Potter Gallery to bring a series of works into the building.

One of his biggest rewards so far has been meeting Law School alumni, in particular Sir Zelman Cowen and a man Sir Zelman brought to the Law School as a student, Dr Sam Pisar. Dr Pisar was a Holocaust survivor who arrived in Australia with no English, no money and no family.

"He came here with literally nothing, having escaped not one but two death camps and he gave 100 per cent plus to succeed, and then he gave back to the community in ways that are ongoing," Hathaway says. Hathaway invited a group of current law students to meet with Dr Pisar last year.

"The students were just blown away. I watched them chatting with him. They heard his story and walked away feeling very good about the institution and the profession they were about to enter. And that's the message we want to send.

"You can be hugely successful in economic and professional terms and still find time in your life to do good for the world and enjoy a rich cultural life," he says. "I really want to make the Law School a genuine home to all of us who are here and those who have gone before."

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 1, March 2009.