Distinguished ANU Law Professor and influential scholar retires

ANU Law staff
ANU College of Law staff gather for Professor Michael Coper's retirement.

Embrace your opportunities to make a difference, to your students, to the world of ideas, and to the theory and practice of the law and the legal system.

After a long and illustrious career, ANU College of Law Professor Michael Coper FAAL has transitioned to Professor Emeritus following his recent retirement.

Professor Coper notched up a great many achievements during his time as the longest serving Dean of ANU College of Law (1998-2012), including lifting the College budget from $3.5m to $25m, embedding the College’s renowned law reform and social justice ethos, and fostering amongst staff and students an individual and collective pride in their achievements and in the institution.

“I am very gratified,” he said, “that, under the sure guidance of my successor Professor Stephen Bottomley, the vibrancy of the College, the spirit of collegiality, and the sense of the importance of making a contribution, through the discipline of law, to a fairer and more just society, live on.”

“I’ve seen a lot of law schools over the years, all around the world, and the ANU College of Law is right up there with the best. And that is not just because of the College’s academic excellence. It is also because of our ethic of service and our determination to make a difference.”

“Colleagues can lose sight of that when they feel overburdened by the day-to-day hassles of teaching and dealing with the bureaucracy. They should just remind themselves of our noble mission, the great work they are doing, how well they are regarded, and what a privilege it is to be an academic, and take a lot of pride and satisfaction from that.”

Before joining ANU Law Professor Coper was – and has remained – one of Australia’s leading constitutional lawyers, publishing several influential books.

Among them was the prize-winning Freedom of Interstate Trade under the Australian Constitution (1983), which was influential in the High Court’s change of direction five years later in the landmark case of Cole v Whitfield, in which Professor Coper also appeared as counsel.

He was a founding member of faculty at the UNSW Law School from 1971; a member of the Inter-State Commission in the 1980s; and served in private practice in the 1990s before joining ANU Law.

Last year ANU College of Law held a conference in Professor Coper’s honour marking his contribution to constitutional law and legal education. Conference organiser Professor James Stellios noted that a “stunning” list of speakers turned out to pay tribute, including High Court judges past and present. However, Professor Coper’s colleagues gathered again last week to mark his achievements over afternoon tea.

Current ANU Law Dean Professor Stephen Bottomley noted the immense and transformative value of Michael’s contribution to the College, the University, and the discipline of law and legal education nationally and internationally, especially through his work as Chair of the Council of Australian Law Deans and as Vice President of the International Association of Law Schools. He also pointed to “three pieces of Coper wisdom” that had resonated with him.

“Number one: ‘Everything you say is valid, for you, because it’s what you think’.  Although, today, there is something vaguely Trumpian about that statement, that is not what Michael intended,” he said.

“Rather, this observation reflects one of the core characteristics that Michael brought to his Deanship – the idea that we all should be heard, and we all have contributions to make to this community of academic and professional staff.

“Number two: ‘Whatever happens, it (mostly) happens for the best’. There is something Panglossian about this. But again, it points to another feature of Michael’s contribution – his unquenched and unquenchable optimism and his ability to focus on the silver lining, rather than the dark cloud.

"And number three: ‘I don’t like publicity – I’m really a shy person’. The point to take from this otherwise dubious statement is that Michael has always encouraged others to step into the limelight and to get the deserved credit for their contributions and achievements.”

Professor Coper’s academic colleagues and the wider ANU Law cohort have been assured it won’t be farewell, simply a chance for him to shift his focus.

“I look forward very much not only to having more time to pursue some research interests that have largely been on hold, but also to continuing in a mentoring capacity.”

“We are all in a state of transition, nothing stays the same,” he told his colleagues. “Embrace your opportunities to make a difference, to your students, to the world of ideas, and to the theory and practice of the law and the legal system. As the Beatles said in their very last song as a group, ‘in the end, the love you take…is equal to the love you make.’”

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team