Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Let the Man Teach!

Back in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, Macquarie University Law School was a really wacky place. Macquarie graduates were regarded as almost unemployable. The entire curriculum was based on an unusual form of understanding law known as “critical legal studies” (CLS). In reality, it was just a glorified form of Marxian sociology.

In those days, there were few lectures and even fewer exams. Law students attended 2 tutorials a week for each subject, and they were assessed on tutorial participation, essays and problem assignments.

Some of our tutors were quite eccentric in their views. Many were firm supporters of the CLS agenda and became known as the “crits”. Amongst them were a small number of Canadian tutors who had joined Macquarie after practising CLS at McGill and other “crit” strongholds. One of their most prominent voices was Andrew Fraser, the man known to his students simply as “Drew”.

Andrew Fraser was regarded as being firmly with the left of the Law School spectrum. However, he did not always tow the “crit” line. He was probably more of a small-“l” liberal than a raving fascist as some now like to portray him.

Many readers will be surprised that someone like me, from a non-Anglo Indian Muslim background would go out of his way to defend Professor Fraser. If reports of his comments are correct, I simply cannot defend what he said. Whether he made these comments about blacks or Muslims or Jews or Callithumpians, it is all the same to me.

However, I can speak about him with some authority. He taught me a full-year course in constitutional law, as well as a semester in company law. I remember him as an avowed republican, someone who loved taking the Mickey out of conservative students.

Drew hated us referring to him by his title. I remember him as a down-to-earth, funny and slightly eccentric teacher. He rarely wore suits, and was often seen walking around campus wearing shorts and a t-shirt. He was a friendly chap who always made time for his students.

Drew was also understanding of people’s personal circumstances. At one stage, I had to miss around 4 weeks of closes. I was caring for a sick relative at the time. Drew was approachable and understood my predicament. He set a strict amended timetable for me to comply with assessment guidelines. He rigorously enforced the timetable, but consulted me at all stages of its enforcement. He dotted the I’s and crossed the T’s, and did not allow me any excuse for further non-compliance.

Drew had a formidable legal mind. By the end of 1990, after 12 months of constitutional law, he managed to turn us into experts of both the Australian and Canadian constitutions. With this comparative constitutional spice, we could articulate arguments on Quebec independence and the pros and cons of an Australian republic.

Drew taught us to think outside the square. He made us realise that you could be a critical lawyer without being a raving Marxist. He emphasised the importance of always looking for a 3rd solution when only 2 solutions are supposed to exist.

Perhaps Drew’s greatest contribution to my own learning was his encouragement of my exploring constitutional issues relating to the development of Muslim democracies. This may seem strange to those whose only exposure to Professor Fraser is watching his performance on tabloid television. When I would raise these issues in class, he always encouraged me to explore them further.

So there you have it. A law professor said to have racist beliefs who enables one of his students to seek constitutional law solutions in the Islamic Shariah! Drew Fraser may have some wacky views. But anyone who says the man cannot teach obviously has not sat in one of his classes.

If Drew Fraser taught his wacky beliefs in class, the university officials may have a point in getting rid of him. But in all my time as one of his students, he was never anything except polite, broad-minded, down-to-earth and sensible. He understood the rigours of undergraduate life, the realities of balancing work and study and family.

Professor Yerbury and the powers-that-be at Macquarie University have made their decision. I respect their decision. But I know how I would have decided if I was Vice Chancellor.

(The author is a Sydney industrial lawyer who studied under Professor Fraser during 1990 and 1992)

© Irfan Yusuf