The rewards of academic life

Victoria Law’s Professor Alberto Costi reflects on some highlights of his career to date and discusses his recent promotion to professorship.

Professor Alberto Costi stands beside a tree in the Law School grounds

Where did you grow up?

I was born in the northern part of Italy near Milan, but I grew up in the Montréal area in the province of Québec, Canada.

How long have you been at Victoria?

I’ve been here since July 2000 – before that, for a few years, I taught at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, and at Keele University in England. I have also held a number of visiting positions.

When did you first become interested in law?

At an early age, I became interested in debating and the way the law can serve for the benefit of humankind. As I grew up, I became interested in politics and in the relations between states. To put this into context, I was studying Sciences in college during the Cold War. I thought that it’s all very well to see how countries interact, but I wondered what governs their relations. Then when I reached university, I went into law because I thought as a lawyer you can make a difference.

What’s been a highlight of your career so far?

It’s difficult for me to pick one specific highlight. I would say that a highpoint is seeing my former students lead successful careers – for example working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the United Nations and leading universities. As academics we’re very lucky because we have the opportunity to influence students, and in some cases, to mentor them. I myself have been very privileged to have had some mentors I felt I could look up to over the years. If there are one or two students every year that you feel like you’ve had a positive influence on, then you should feel lucky – there are not many people who are able to say that.

In professional terms, I would say being promoted to Professor is a big step. Spending time at Oxford as a Visiting Fellow was another great experience. But more than any one particular highlight, there are lots of little things that make academic life a rewarding one.

You’ve taught all over the world… how do New Zealand students differ from students in other countries?

This is a question I’m often asked, and the first word that always comes to mind is ‘shyness’. I think New Zealand students tend to display a natural shyness compared to students in some of the other countries I’ve taught in. They sometimes don’t realise how good they are. Many of our students pursue further studies overseas, for instance in the United States and the UK, and while there, they do very well indeed and often win prizes. I think most of our students would be as successful anywhere else in the world, and we should appreciate that.

What are some current challenges you see in your areas of expertise, particularly international and environmental law?

One crucial challenge relates to the role of non-state actors. International law has not yet found a way to adequately tackle insurgency movements, and this has allowed them to participate in and shape world affairs. I think that’s an important problem for international law. Even though there have been developments in human rights and individual criminal responsibility for international crimes, we’re still lagging behind in the ways to govern appropriately the actions of non-state actors – some non-state actors are currently more powerful than the governments of the states in which they operate.

Another critical challenge is around climate change and the fate of the low-lying atoll nations in the Pacific. The question is, what will happen to those states once their territory becomes uninhabitable and most of the population has to migrate? For example, will Tuvalu remain as a state or will it just disappear? What about the fate of its population – as its people go from being a majority in their own land to becoming a minority elsewhere – how can they preserve their existing rights, culture and language? The international community is not doing enough to address this issue.

Why do you think it’s important to take a cross-disciplinary approach?

No discipline can live in isolation, and law is affected by many things, including the conduct of government and of citizens. As legal scholars, we need to also consider other perspectives because it allows us to understand why law evolves the way it does. If we apply the law without taking its context into account, then it becomes a black and white exercise – it doesn’t reflect reality.

How does it feel to be promoted to Professor?

I appreciate that it’s a great achievement, but at the same time I look at it not as the fulfilment of something but rather as a stepping stone to playing a more important role in the governance of the University, and perhaps playing a greater role as a mentor to younger colleagues. One shouldn’t sit on one’s laurels. Rather, it gives me energy to do more, and I think that’s important for a Professor – to lead the way and continue to work very hard.