John Dewar takes up post as new Vice-Chancellor

Posted on January 15, 2012


Professor John Dewar: Universities are transformative for individuals and humanity

Professor John Dewar took up his post this week as La Trobe University’s sixth Vice-Chancellor.

In a message to staff, the former University of Melbourne Provost says his goal is to ensure that La Trobe is ‘recognised as the natural alternative to Victoria’s two Group of Eight universities, with a unique appeal other universities can’t offer’.

‘I want to see La Trobe placed in the top dozen universities nationally on all standard measures of quality and excellence.  We should aim to be well on the way to achieving these objectives in time for the University’s 50th birthday in 2017,’ he adds.

La Trobe’s founding purpose, he says, was to be a nationally and internationally significant teaching and research university providing new educational opportunities in Melbourne’s north and in regional Victoria.

‘Over the past 45 years we have fulfilled that role with distinction, daring and flair, with the result that La Trobe staff are often at the forefront of major scientific and academic breakthroughs, and leading participants in the national conversation. Our alumni are making a difference to the nation and the world.’

In her welcoming comments, the Chancellor, Adrienne E Clarke AC, said ‘Professor Dewar joins the University at a time of critical change and challenge in the Australian higher education system.

‘His leadership will build on the foundations established by the former Vice Chancellor Professor Paul Johnson, which has included revitalising the Bundoora and Bendigo campuses and identifying the University’s strategic priorities,’ Professor Clarke said.

Reaching out to communities

Professor Dewar came to Australia 15 years ago from Oxford and has held senior positions at Griffith University and the University of Melbourne.  In his inaugural La Trobe podcast with media officer Matt Smith, he spoke about his passionate belief in the transformative power of education.

‘A key part of La Trobe’s mission is to reach out to communities that traditionally have not been able to participate in higher education.  I experienced this in my own life,’ he says. 

‘I’d been in a state school which traditionally never sent anyone to Oxford or Cambridge. I was lucky enough to get in to study law at Oxford and benefited hugely from it. My life changed as a result. So for me, that aspect of the La Trobe mission is incredibly important and very powerful.

Professor Dewar with Chancellor Clarke during a meeting with University staff

‘But universities do a lot more than that,’ Professor Dewar says. ‘They also create new knowledge in ways that can have a transformative effect. I’m really excited by the AgriBio initiative at La Trobe, which is a wonderful example of how university researchers can work with other researchers on topics that are of central importance to the future of humanity.’

International reputation in family law

Professor Dewar is an internationally-known family law specialist and researcher. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford, where he was also a Fellow of Hertford College.

Speaking about his background, he said he ‘very nearly’ went to the Bar in London as a Family Law barrister, but decided it would be ‘more stimulating’ to follow his own interests ‘rather than what clients brought to you through the door’.

‘I haven’t regretted it. The most rewarding research I’ve done has been in the area of children who are caught up in divorce (to) understand better how the system produced its results and how it could be fixed when it wasn’t producing the right ones.’

He said he moved to Queensland’s Griffith University attracted by the challenge of helping shape a new law school in another part of the world and fell in love with Australia.

Commenting on his transition into university leadership, he says while he was ‘very happy’ as a legal researcher at Griffith, when the opportunity presented itself to become Dean of the Law School he accepted it and enjoyed the role.

Lead and influence – not just react

Professor Dewar sees the Vice-Chancellor’s role as setting the strategic agenda and direction for the University and ‘managing a myriad of external relationships’.

Deregulation of higher education, which starts this year, is ‘just one of a range of things that are in flux at in the sector,’ he says.

‘This means we have to be much clearer than in the past about why students would come to study at La Trobe. So we need to sharpen both the image we present to the outside world (and) the value proposition we’re offering students.’

He stresses it is also important for vice-chancellors to ‘lead and influence public policy in this new environment’ and not just see themselves as ‘victims’, constantly reacting to it.

‘I’d want to play an important part in national debates about higher education policy and higher education funding, obviously with the interests of La Trobe and whatever strategic directions we set, very much at heart.

‘I wish the sector,’ he concludes, ‘would see its role in those terms more than simply reacting to what’s thrown at it by government or regulators.’ □

Hear the full podcast interview