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Giving her all for the future

Volume 7 Number 3 March 14 - April 10 2011

Professor Carolyn Evans, new dean of Melbourne Law School, is giving her all to ensure new generations of law students have transformative experiences that will equip them for rich and fascinating careers. Fiona Simpson reports

It was Nobel laureate Albert Camus who wrote that “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present” – and “giving all” is certainly what Professor Carolyn Evans is doing, having recently become the first female dean of Australia’s first law school.

In the instant that Professor Evans catches your eye and greets you with a radiant smile, it is clear that this bright, dynamic woman is set to make a big impact on a law school that counts four prime ministers (including the current one), two governors general and countless leaders across the judiciary, government, legal and private sectors, as alumni.

And as Professor Evans begins to outline her impressive set of goals and plans, it is her sincerity, warmth and authenticity that leave an indelible impression. Qualities that illustrate not only her genuine commitment, but the gravitas of her leadership and vision and that have already served to inspire students, the legal profession and colleagues alike.

“I want to see Melbourne Law School thrive – both now, and in the future”, says Professor Evans. “I have a deep and abiding affection for this School and see this role as an opportunity to repay just some of the wonderful experiences it has given me.”

These experiences began when Professor Evans arrived as an undergraduate student more than 20 years ago, armed with “an interest in human rights and in making real change in the world” and continued as she became a highly-respected educator and an internationally-recognised expert in constitutional law, human rights law and the law relating to religion.

In a remarkable career, she has earned degrees in arts and law from the University of Melbourne, been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, completed doctoral studies at Oxford University and most recently, in 2010, was awarded a Fulbright Senior Scholarship that saw her undertake further research on comparative religious freedom as a Visiting Fellow at American and Emory Universities in the US.

“I had a great undergrad experience here and yet when I came back ten years later I was impressed by how much more effort had gone into the curriculum,” Professor Evans says.

“Now, another ten years on, I’ve seen another leap - with learning opportunities that extend well beyond the classroom. Consider our Mentor Program where first year students are able to be paired with a member of the profession – imagine being mentored by a partner in a law firm or a retired chief justice.”

Never one to rest on her laurels, Professor Evans is focused on creating more opportunities like this for students to learn and explore the law.

“It is vitally important that we continue this School’s pioneering tradition. Now is not the time to stand still. We need to strive to find new and sophisticated ways to engage students with the law – exploring not just local, but global settings too.”

Professor Evans is unequivocal about the need to prepare students to have an ethical perspective and a global outlook.

“There is no doubt that we need to develop our students to be true global citizens. Nearly all lawyers now have some international dimension to their practice, while many of them will deal with transnational implications in their practice. It is no longer enough to understand the law of one jurisdiction; students need to understand how the law fits within global practice and be able to adopt sound professional practice each day.”

Professor Evans sees international experiences as very much part of the fabric of today’s legal education. “Our students now have the chance to study international law in Geneva, New York and Washington – to see first-hand the operations of institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the International Red Cross. Under our global partnerships program they can combine their Melbourne degree with one from Oxford University, New York University or the Chinese University of Hong Kong.”

To achieve more of these types of transformative learning experiences, Professor Evans sees that it is incredibly important for the Law School to work closely with the legal profession. “We already have close connections across the profession. I want to build on these and engage more with community groups – to give our students the broadest range of experiences possible.”

Back in the classroom, Professor Evans is pursuing ways to integrate the teaching of different strands of law, to reflect the nature of real-world legal problems. “We need to ensure that the way we teach the law reflects the multifaceted nature of legal cases. I have colleagues working on how we can integrate our curriculum, so students are equipped to tackle complex problems, are ready for the realities of practice and are able to work well in modern and fluid teams.

“We are in a good position to develop integrated teaching. We now use seminar-based, rather than lecture-based teaching. Students are expected to come to class having done their reading, ready to participate in debate and discussion. At the beginning of each semester we place students into small “syndicate” groups, where they work on assignments and class tasks together. With this syndicate structure in place, we are now examining how to set tasks that address several areas of law”.

Professor Evans acknowledges that she has much to do, yet with her familiar warmth says “It is an exciting time for the Law School – I am supported by a wonderfully talented staff and a remarkable and diverse student body.”

Perhaps though, the old adage that suggests that the truest measure of any school is the quality of its alumni provides a more telling hint of just how bright the future of Melbourne Law School really is.