Remembering Sir Zelman Cowen

By Professor Michael Crommelin AO

Professor Michael Crommelin AO, former Dean of Melbourne Law School, remembers one of its greatest champions: the Rt Hon. Sir Zelman Cowen AK GCMG GCVO QC (LLB 1940, LLM 1941).

As Dean of Melbourne Law School from 1951 to 1966, Sir Zelman Cowen laid the foundation stones for the international reputation that the Law School enjoys today.

He came to the position fresh from five years in Oxford, where in 1947 he had been awarded first class honours and a Vinerian Law Scholarship in the Bachelor of Civil Laws examination, and elected a Fellow of Oriel College. But towards the end of that time he had also had a glimpse of legal education in the United States of America, as a visiting lecturer in the University of Chicago Law School in the summer of 1949. This was  his first experience of an American law school, and it  had a profound impact upon him.

From the outset of his appointment as Dean, Sir Zelman set out to transform the University of Melbourne Faculty of Law into an Australian law school. That required a community of legal scholars who shared his intellectual energy and enthusiasm for legal education; a shift in teaching methodology from the traditional lecture to student participation in learning by case analysis, class discussion and mooting; and (perhaps most challenging) an active engagement by Melbourne Law School in international legal scholarship and education.

At the time, it was ambitious, radical, even contentious. Still, he succeeded. Critical to that success were Sir Zelman's international outlook and involvement. He travelled widely, and often. He built an extraordinary network of strong personal relationships that were, and remain, invaluable to the Law School. He enticed outstanding international visitors to Melbourne; he created wonderful opportunities for colleagues and students to work and study at leading overseas universities; and he performed brilliantly in his many visiting appointments, public lectures, academic meetings and professional gatherings, always in the name of Melbourne Law School.

Forty years later, I visited overseas universities, law firms and government offices in the United States, Europe and Asia, as Dean of Melbourne Law School. Wherever

I went, I discovered that Sir Zelman was remembered with admiration, respect and affection. In the minds of many, he was synonymous with Melbourne Law School. He had made his mark on the world; the Law School was a significant beneficiary.

From the outset of his appointment as Dean, Sir Zelman set out to transform the University of Melbourne Faculty of Law into an Australian law school.

Sir Zelman's love for and influence upon Melbourne Law School continued until his last days. He accepted invitations to many events, to which he brought the

same intellectual energy and enthusiasm that characterised his term as Dean. His presence on these occasions was always warmly welcomed by colleagues, former students and friends, many of whom acknowledged with gratitude the guidance and assistance that he had provided to them at the Law School and in their subsequent careers.

His legacy remains substantial. His idea of a law school is entrenched at Melbourne. It also extends across Australia, and to many other countries which were inspired by him in their quest for legal education.

Banner image: Sir Zelman Cowen, former Dean, Melbourne Law School, 1957.
Credit: National Archives of Australia: A1501, A867/37

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 7, May 2012.