School of hard knocks

Rejection by Yale prompted Dan Hunter, Dean of Swinburne University’s Law School to switch from commercial law to academia, he tells Holley Gawne.


Dan Hunter sits poised at the desk in his office at Swinburne University, ready to be photographed. He has straightened out his notes, he has neatly stacked his pile of textbooks, he has shifted his rubbish bin to under the table, and he has swiftly finished the remains of his coffee, leaving a pristine empty glass. His hands are placed neatly in his lap, legs comfortably folded, and he’s staring directly down the barrel of the camera.

“Wait,” he says suddenly, breaking the silence. “Do you want me to put my Darth Vader mask on?”

Conventionality “has never been a concept” that the Dean of the Swinburne Law School has associated himself with.

As a teenager, Hunter, the son of two teachers, received a scholarship to attend a prestigious private school. It was here where he first learnt that conformity was often not just expected, but celebrated.

“The smart kids would just automatically do medicine or law, and there wasn’t much thinking as to what would actually suit the kid. While I did have an interest in both the humanities and in science, I was just aiming for what I thought was the most glamorous job.”

After completing a double degree in computer science/law at Monash University, Hunter began practising as a solicitor at a large commercial law firm. Almost as soon as he started, he realised that working as a lawyer wasn’t for him. He began job-hopping, moving from firm to firm, each time hoping that the new position would instil the passion lacking in his life.

Stuck in another uninspiring job, Hunter decided that the way out of this trajectory was to do his Masters overseas. He applied for only one university, Yale, and was rejected.

It was this rejection that was the catalyst for his career change. One night, scorned and alone at a bar, he rang up Yale.

“I drunk dialled them,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “I was pissed and I wanted to hear what I could do to improve my application for the following year. They told me to consider working as an adjunct professor. I didn’t even know what that meant.”

Once he’d “sobered up”, Hunter realised that the term adjunct professor referred to working as a sessional tutor. He soon was appointed to his first academic position, teaching commercial law at Deakin University. From here he again changed jobs often and, for that matter, countries. He both studied and taught at the University of Melbourne, Cambridge, New York Law School, and, most recently, Queensland University of Technology, where he worked before being appointed to his position at Swinburne.

This time, however, he was moving not because he felt dissatisfied, but because it was what was keeping him interested.

“My main motivation in life would be curiosity,” he says. “I’ve always found that new ideas and challenges are the things that drive me the most.” Hunter suggests that it is perhaps this acknowledgement of the evolution of his interests, combined with his rocky start in his career in law, which enables him to empathise with the students at Swinburne.

“I’m glad that I did practise as a lawyer because it means that I understand what the experience is like first hand, and I also learnt a lot about myself in that time. But I totally acknowledge that not everyone who does a law degree will need or want to become a lawyer.”

“I want to make it clear law degrees can be used for so many different careers, due to the generic but essential skills that it trains the students in. We cater to every individual student.”

Hunter says that this is the most rewarding part of his job – being able to provide personalised assistance and advice to his law students. This understanding has even transferred to his home life, where his 16- year- old daughter is grappling with whether to do a law degree.

“I’m not going to say follow your dreams and all that crap that old people say to young people, but I’ll say go out and talk to people and find out what options are available to you.”

It is this outlook that Hunter says sets him apart as dean from other academics in the legal profession.

“I wouldn’t say I’m unique, but I do have a different approach.”

Dan’s friend and colleague, Amanda Scardamaglia, with whom he takes Italian classes, says, “Dan is not wedded to old ideas about how things have been done in the past. He wants to do something truly new and innovative but he wants to bring others along with him.”

His assistant, Catherine Schramm, agrees: “Sometimes Dan is very serious in his role and just wants to focus on his work,” she says, “but he has days where he’ll goof around and put his Darth Vader mask on.”

Hunter has published a number of articles and is writing a book on how material cultures and intellectual property intersect. He says that material cultures can relate to interest areas as seemingly obscure as Star Wars, Lego and Barbie dolls.

“I write on these things because no one else does. People look down their noses at them and say they’re not important. I’m exploring the unexplored.”

His enthusiasm for studying pop culture has even connected with his interaction with students, where he has been known to shoot students with nerf guns if they are not concentrating.

“I take no prisoners,” he says dryly.

But,” he adds, “I’m not personally particularly enthused by Lego or Star Wars. I’ve got Lego sets that have been sitting around my house unopened for years.”

So why does he have Darth Vader sitting pride and place atop his desk, if he is not a Star Wars fan?

“Oh, it gets people talking.”