Alumni profile: Rufus Black

Associate Professor Rufus Black (LLB(Hons) 1991) oversees a community of 365 students as Master of Ormond College. 

Rufus Black
Rufus Black

Seated in his office in the striking sandstone main building of Ormond College, the Master describes residential colleges as the "monasteries of the 21st century".

"They bring to the world people  who are formed by that common experience of living with other people, as they have to negotiate both ideas and people… It's a place where learning and community can still happen, and where the experience of community is also a form of learning," says Associate Professor Black.

Black has just started his third year at Ormond College where the role of Master combines the responsibilities of a CEO with the educational duties of looking after the academic life of the college and the pastoral duties of overseeing the wellbeing and welfare of its people.

"The core of what we are about is equipping people so they'll be able to make a difference for good in the world. We recognise that as a task that is both about equipping them with intellectual skills, but also personal skills and leadership skills. A community like this is a great place to do that."

Black is a passionate advocate for quality teaching and learning.

"I think education is fundamentally a personal encounter. It's an encounter of ideas and people. And so it's really important to create environments where that can happen."

Black's own journey is one that has been shaped fundamentally by the people and ideas he has encountered over 10 years of tertiary education.

The seeds of his belief in the ability of education to transform lives can be found in his own experiences, first at the University of Melbourne and then Oxford University.

The decision to study law came out of a strong sense of justice for Black, whose father recently retired as Chief Justice of the Federal Court, the Hon. Michael Black AC QC (LLB 1963, HonLLD 2010).

"My father was a lawyer. I grew up in a house where he was saving whales, fighting for forests, seeking justice for the wrongly convicted… and that deeply embedded in me that the law was about fighting the good fight. So I went to Law School to fight the good fight."

At Melbourne Law School in the early 1990s, Black found an environment where he was able to explore the issues that he was passionate about. He talks of outstanding teachers such as Professor Hilary Charlesworth AM who taught International Law, and Professor Michael Crommelin AO who taught Constitutional Law, Administrative Law and a new subject for the  time, Natural Resources Law.

And he remembers as inspirational the classes of Professor Robin Sharwood AM who taught Legal History with colour and humour.

"People would clap at the end of Professor Sharwood's class – he offered a profound and inspiring account of how the law and broader social and political history related to one another."

But while the Law School met his expectations, the law did not.

"I didn't find the contemporary accounts of justice or values adequate. I thought they were very impoverished… I sensed that at Oxford there was a different kind of conversation going on about these kinds of questions. I was lucky enough to get a Rhodes Scholarship to get there, and did indeed discover that there were jurisprudential and other philosophers, development economists and theologians talking about different ways of thinking about justice… It answered those questions in far richer ways."

Arriving at Oxford, Black found that he was well equipped to take full advantage of the opportunity."

The Law School provided me with  a great education. You worry, turning up at place like Oxford, how you will fair against students from Harvard, Yale, or Oxford or Cambridge. I found that thanks to Melbourne Law School I didn't need to worry." 

The Law School's insistence on analytical rigour and the opportunity to develop research skills and problem solving skills were highlights for Black, who also credits the school as teaching him how to be an independent learner. 

While earning a law degree from Melbourne and a masters and doctorate in theology from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, education was not without its personal challenges for Black. He was dyslexic at a time when very little was known about the condition. At university this translated into a student who excelled in essay writing and mooting, but struggled in exams. 

"I've been really lucky, along the way, to have had inspiring teachers and mentors who believed in me and encouraged me. [Dyslexia] never got in the way. And at the Law School, those people – Robin, Hilary, Michael – absolutely never allowed those things to give one any sense that anything wasn't possible." 

Black returned to Australia from Oxford in 1997 and spent three years as the college chaplain at Ormond and teaching ethics in the United Faculty of Theology, after being ordained as a Uniting Church minister. 

He then decided that he needed to expand his skills and develop expertise in the corporate and government sector. He joined management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. where he worked  on large-scale organisational change and strategy work. In 2009 he made the decision to give up the corporate salary and move to the education sector.

"I'd gone to McKinsey to develop a range of skills and to see what globalisation looked like up close, and I really enjoyed it... But I'd reached a point where I had to decide: Am I going to be a consultant for the rest of my career? Or am I going to take those skills and use them elsewhere?"

At Ormond these skills have seen him guide the college through the changes presented by the recent transition to the Melbourne Model, the University's radical restructuring of the undergraduate curriculum.

This has included invigorating Ormond's learning program to complement that on campus. The college offers small tutorials where teachers and students can engage directly and personally. Black himself teaches a course in ethics and a course in problem solving to third- year students. He sees the additional courses offered by Ormond as part of their responsibility to prepare students for the challenges they will face in their lives and careers.

"The problems they will face will be complex. They will be wicked – not morally wicked, but 'wicked' in the sense that they keep changing as you work on them and are not amenable to the traditional ways you think about problems. They are global issues, so you've got to have a global perspective. And they are cognitive problems; they are problems about what we believe."

The college is also in the midst of a major upgrade to cater for a growing number of graduates. New accommodation and new programs will provide for the graduates, who will ultimately make up a third of the student population. With colleges traditionally being undergraduate places, this will be a major change for Ormond.

"At times we look at Oxford and Cambridge as models and they have been enriched by having graduate students as part of their life. So we hope we can achieve a similar level of mature students, who are a bit further on, whose agenda is different, who add to the balance."

While he now focuses on the education sector, Black has not lost contact with the commercial world. He is a director at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, and provides advice to the public sector. He completed an independent review for the Department of Defence last year and is currently co-leading the Independent Review of the Australian  Intelligence  Community.

Looking at his career path, Black says that it is not what he had expected when he first walked through the doors of Melbourne Law  School.

"I didn't ever have a career plan. I just tried to pursue the things I cared about, and different and surprising things kept unfolding along the way."

You get the sense that surprising things will continue to develop for the Master of Ormond.

"I will keep on doing the things that I care about. Creating the kind of educational environment that I think matters; working on the large problems that I think important… educational disadvantage, public sector problems."

Image: Master, Ormond College, Associate Professor Rufus Black.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 5, May 2011.