Andrew Lansdown interviews Augusto Zimmermann, Professor and Head of Law, Sheridan Institute of Higher Education.
Augusto, what is your background?
I was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and had an excellent upbringing. My parents are wonderful people and they remain very happily married. I have two sisters who are close to me and also very happily married and with children.
I undertook my primary and secondary education in a prestigious Catholic school. Then I graduated in law at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, following a Masters of Laws at the same institution. During my time as a postgraduate student I had a personal encounter with God and became a member of the Baptist Church. I am now a committed Presbyterian and have been living in Australia since 2002.
I decided to study law because I had (and I still have) a great desire to fight for liberty and justice. I also wished to know how things work. Nations, as well as individuals, are subject to laws. I wished to understand these different laws, how they are created, who has made them, and how legislation can be used to improve society and to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of everyone.
Could you share more about the personal encounter with God that led to your conversion?
I was born and raised as a Catholic. During my formative years I knew God but had a fairly distant relationship with him. It was only when I was doing my postgraduate studies in a Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro that I started to feel a profound desire to know more about the Lord and more personally enjoy his presence. I started then to study the Bible more systematically, and to regularly attend the university chapel to pray and attend Bible studies. In those days I also started to attend a Baptist Church that was located at a close proximity to my home. It was there that I felt touched by the Holy Spirit and expressed my utmost desire to consecrate my entire life and career to the Lord. In 2000, I had the privilege of being baptised by immersion in that very Baptist Church.
Why did you come to Australia?
I came to this country in February 2002 once I felt in my heart that God was instructing me to migrate to Australia. Back in those days I was a young legal academic who had just launched his second academic book—a book on constitutional law and principles.
Arriving in Melbourne, I decided to undertake my doctoral studies at Monash University under the supervision of one of the nation’s greatest legal minds: Professor Jeffrey Goldsworthy.
I don’t regard myself as a typical migrant. I came to this nation with a firm purpose, not of seeking a better quality of life, but of expanding God’s Kingdom by contributing to the cause of justice, liberty and the rule of law, including the preservation of our Christian legal tradition of acknowledgement of God-given inalienable rights to life, liberty and property.
What was your position at Murdoch University, and how did you come by it?
When I finished writing my PhD thesis at Monash, in July 2006, I actually thought my mission in Australia had been accomplished. My doctoral research was concerning legal and extra-legal impediments or obstacles facing the societal realisation of the ideal of legality known as the Rule of Law.
One of my PhD examiners, who at that time was the Law Dean at Murdoch University, was obviously impressed with my work and so he invited me to join his law school. First appointed as law lecturer, I later became a senior law lecturer, then post-graduate director, and finally the school’s Associate Dean for research.
At Murdoch I oversaw all research activities and coordinated a few core units for their Bachelor of Laws program: constitutional law and legal theory. I also opened a legal theory association and became the editor-in-chief of a blind peer-reviewed journal.
Why did you leave Murdoch University?
I left my tenured position at Murdoch because I had better and more exciting plans for my academic life. To be frank, I was unimpressed with the insufficient level of academic freedom in that institution. Also, some of my colleagues had developed a visceral hostility towards Christianity and freedom of speech. So I thought it was time to leave Murdoch in order to pursue better academic goals, which only higher education institutions such as Sheridan are able to provide.
You have a big reputation as a legal scholar. Why have you chosen to teach at a small tertiary institution like Sheridan Institute of Higher Education?
Sheridan offers me a unique opportunity to establish an outstanding law school. When our law school finally receives its accreditation, I expect to create the finest law school in this nation. Our future students will learn to develop a vision of the common good, which is wedded to the Christian principles of government under the law and inalienable rights of the individual.
I was particularly attracted to Sheridan due to its commitment to the principle of academic freedom grounded in the Baptist academic tradition. The origin of Sheridan’s commitment to academic freedom is found in a fractious group of English exiles living in Amsterdam in the early 17th century. In confrontational tracts and sermons, those first Baptists were among the earliest advocates for these three foundation principles of modern democracy: freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and freedom of association.
These principles continue to have immense relevance for Sheridan. The Sheridan Statement of Academic Freedom notes that Baptists were at the forefront of the struggle for the fundamental rights and freedoms. Baptists are traditionally driven by an unyielding commitment to the common good which is wedded to the principles of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. They are also committed to defending the basic right of individuals to freely associate with one another on the basis of shared beliefs, and to separate from each other if those beliefs diverge.
What is your position at Sheridan and what courses do you teach there?
I am currently Professor and Head of Law at the Sheridan Institute of Higher Education. I am also on the board of Sheridan’s Academic Council. Further, I have designed some politics and law units for our Bachelor of Arts, including a unit that I am presently teaching entitled “Foundations of Constitutional Government”.
Above all, I am actively working to establish a Christian law school at Sheridan. We have formed an outstanding team of highly qualified and respected legal academics, partners of law firms, judges, and educators, aiming at the preparation of our application for a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Laws with Honours with the Legal Practice Board of Western Australia and the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA).
How does teaching at Sheridan compare with teaching at Murdoch and other secular tertiary institutions?
At Sheridan our methodology equips our students to be well placed and suited for the future roles of the modern and emerging world. Students learn how to model respectful and ethical behaviour in team environments and to serve the broader community in some capacity.
This is not so with the so-called secular universities. Anyone who reads newspapers and magazines is surely aware that politically correctness is overrunning such universities. The Institute of Public Affairs has carried out a systematic study of what is happening and it found that the vast majority of Australian universities adopt policies that substantially limit freedom of speech. Such a failure is seriously imperilling the discovery of truth, the core purpose of Australia’s universities.
Once the strongholds of free inquiry and challenging thinking, Australia’s universities have become bastions of left-wing indoctrination and enforced compliance. There is little tolerance and openness to debate in these universities. They have become oppressive environments where a handful of bureaucrats and union officials impose their own restrictions on what should be the open and vigorous exchange of academic ideas.
But if these universities cannot be bastions of free speech and free intellectual inquiry, how indeed can they be places of higher learning and scientific discovery? Increasingly universities are more interested in not upsetting certain people than in protecting fundamental academic freedom. For example, at Murdoch, I would never be allowed to hold a conference on the virtues of Christianity and Western Civilisation, simply because the university administrators are committed to cultural diversity and moral relativism. And yet, here at Sheridan I was able to organise the historic “Religious Freedom at the Crossroads” conference in June 2019.
Although at the heart of academic freedom is the right to take a view with which your colleagues disagree, I have witnessed how it can be deeply dangerous to be a dissenter and work in such universities, particularly in the fields of law, history and political or environmental science. By contrast, Sheridan is fully committed to free intellectual inquiry as a core value.
Albeit with Christian underpinnings, will students at Sheridan receive a sound academic education in the disciplines they are enrolled to study?
An important goal of Sheridan Institute is to achieve academic excellence in tertiary education. To achieve this goal, academic interaction among students and academic staff is heavily promoted and class sizes are smaller than the average class size at other universities. Our special focus on research and practical skills makes us especially committed to the pursuit of teaching, research, and professional development that is characterised by teaching intellectual rigour, thorough cogent reason, and effective written and spoken persuasion.
In the cause of academic excellence, our aim is to develop higher-order professional skills that include critical thinking and analysis, problem-solving and persuasion, research, communication and collaboration, and ethical and professional development. Our courses are unique because they are designed to ensure that Sheridan graduates will be distinguished by their character, intellectual and ethical integrity, and commitment to service.
Speaking of my own department: Sheridan Law School will meet all the requirements for admission to legal practice. However, in important aspects, it will not replicate the models offered by the other law schools in Western Australia. Sheridan will teach much smaller classes than other law schools. Sheridan will provide small group teaching in a seminar format. At Sheridan our core units will deliver the basics of a classical legal education as well as the foundations of ethical and moral philosophy. They will have a heavy focus on both research and practical skills. Our teachers will be committed to excellence in teaching, research, and professional development.
Could you elaborate on your—and Sheridan’s—understanding of the place and importance of Christianity in higher education?
Like the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sheridan is a Christian higher education provider. Sheridan’s students are not required to follow the Christian faith. However, they will be introduced to the principles of the faith that guide Sheridan’s founders.
In the TEQSA-approved Bachelor degrees that Sheridan offers, students study what are known as the “Common Core” units. These units are “Introduction to Christianity”, “Survey of the Bible”, and “Christianity as a Worldview”. These units are conducted from an interdisciplinary perspective, and through them students are given an overview of Christian principles, critically engage with the Bible, consider the role of Christianity both historically and in contemporary society, and consider the perspectives of other influential worldviews. Through the study of these units, Sheridan’s students not only learn the basics of a classical education, but also gain historical, philosophical, theological, moral and ethical knowledge that is very much relevant to their undergraduate studies.
We are not just another higher education provider in Australia. We are driven by a vision of the common good which is pledged to the principles of religious liberty, freedom of conscience and freedom of association. Sheridan welcomes students from all faith traditions and advances independent thinking, while protecting the right to dissent and promoting the Christian ethic of love for one another.
I believe that God calls Christians to reform culture within their local spheres of influence—families, churches, schools, neighbourhoods, workplaces, professional organisations, and civil governments. In order to effect lasting change, they need to develop a proper Christian worldview. If Christianity is true then it will yield a better approach to every aspect of social life and every area of human knowledge, including law, history, politics, anthropology, and any other subject area of higher education.
Christianity gave to the world a gospel of love and its first universities almost a thousand years ago. From their monastic roots and through the nineteenth century, all universities were founded as Christian institutions, regardless of whether they taught law, theology, or medicine. The Western university as we know it today was founded in the Middle Ages as a Christian institution. Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton… each of them has a Christian origin and originally shared a common goal: to explain the works of God and to train minds for that interpretative work.
Harvard’s original motto was Veritas Christo (“Truth in Christ”). Princeton, which was founded by Presbyterians in 1746, considered the teaching of Christianity a basic element in the education of that university. Yale, also founded as a Christian university, instructed its students to obtain the clearest conception of Divine things and a saving knowledge of God in his Son Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately, these universities ended up gradually losing their Christian identity. Today their students may spend years in such universities and learn nothing about their Christian roots. The secularisation of once-Christian universities was caused primarily by the lack of biblical worldview, the gradual disconnection of the institution from the church, and the abandonment of a commitment to an evangelical mandate.
Despite the considerable departure from their original charters, these universities would not be in existence today had it not been for their Christian forebears. Christianity has a huge number of enemies at universities today. The left has decisively won the cultural war and there are now only a few Christian academics left in Western universities, including Australia’s.
Developing faith-and-learning integration is about viewing life mentally through Christian lenses. It is about developing a biblical mind and loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, and mind. The primary mission of Christian higher education, then, should be to develop the Christian mind. This is a primary reason for Sheridan Institute’s existence.
How do you see the future for Sheridan Institute and for your involvement in it?
I see Sheridan as becoming the finest higher education provider in this country—and I will make sure that it has the best law school in the country!
Disclosure: Andrew Lansdown is an adjunct lecturer in creative writing at Sheridan Institute of Higher Education