Mindy Chen-Wishart (Rhodes Visiting Fellow & St. Hilda’s 1992) is currently a Reader in Contract Law at Oxford and a Tutorial Fellow in Law at Merton College. Originally from New Zealand, Mindy was a Senior Lecturer at Otago University before arriving at Oxford. She currently holds visiting professorships at Hong Kong University and the National University of Singapore. Mindy’s specialisation in contract law led to her publication of Contract Law (5th edition) and a current research project on contract law in Asia, soon to be published by Oxford University Press.

Mindy chen-wishart and her three sons James, max and zachary (left-right).

Mindy chen-wishart and her three sons James, max and zachary (left-right).

Rhodes Project: Where do you consider home?

Mindy Chen-Wishart: I emigrated from Taiwan when I was 10 and then emigrated from New Zealand – and both times I did so reluctantly. Overall, I have three homes.

I have Taiwan, where I spent the formative years of my childhood and where I recently went to a family reunion. In many ways I’m extremely Chinese – I feel very at home due to their language and values. My second home is New Zealand, where I spent my teens. New Zealand educated me, gave me a lot of my values and launched my career. My third home, of course, is Oxford – where my children have grown up and where I have spent the bulk of my adult life and career. I feel extremely fortunate in a globalised world to have multiple perspectives on almost any issue. I feel at home pretty much anywhere!

Rhodes Project: What drew you to contract law as an academic passion and career path?

Mindy Chen-Wishart: In many ways, contract law is a well-ploughed field. There are a lot of scholars in my area of law and in my profession we sometimes say not to go into contract law because there’s nothing new to discover.

I find contract law exciting, however, because it’s a reflection of social life. Contract law is about how we deal with one another, how we treat other people and cooperate to achieve mutual objectives. The field raises issues of equality, freedom, autonomy, fairness, prosperity and welfare. Lately I’ve been teaching philosophy of law and the relationship between contract law and human rights and it’s rejuvenating my love for the subject. I’ve also expanded into comparative contract law – it’s fantastically interesting to see what we have the same instincts about even if we go about it in different ways, but also what we differ on.

Rhodes Project: Could you comment on your experience here in Oxford as a Rhodes Fellow in 1992 and how Oxford has changed, if at all?

Mindy Chen-Wishart: When I first arrived in Oxford I felt quite lost; Oxford felt extremely foreign and very unfriendly. I felt like an outsider and struggled with “imposter syndrome” – the feeling that the selection committee had made a mistake and that I wasn’t good enough. I was also struggling with postnatal depression after giving birth to my second son, so it was a very challenging time for me.

In retrospect, I realise that the Rhodes Fellowship ‘held’ me through that very difficult period – otherwise I might have quit my career. It gave me the opportunity to feel lost, struggle, fail and find my footing again. I am forever grateful to the Rhodes Trust for the opportunity to be in Oxford. In general, Oxford can be a very difficult environment – especially if you’re not on the “inside”. When I got offered my job at Merton, my experience changed radically because I finally had access to the networks and infrastructure I needed. If you’re not on the “inside” you are often clinging on with your fingernails!

Since 1992, Oxford has changed considerably – it’s less of an old boys’ club. There were many unspoken rules and conventions that were difficult for outsiders to understand or negotiate. The university is more transparent and accountable now, but it’s clear we still have a gender and other equality issues. It’s more diverse and more equal, but we have a long way to go.

Rhodes Project: What social/political issues in New Zealand or the United Kingdom do you find particularly interesting at the moment?

Mindy Chen-Wishart: I think both in New Zealand and the UK there are issues of equality and diversity. Speaking as an immigrant, I think the world feels scarier than it did even five years ago. The political climates feel much more unwelcoming. Both countries are very multicultural but struggle with the role of minorities and immigrants in society.

Rhodes Project: What do you find most fulfilling in your current work teaching, researching and writing?

Mindy Chen-Wishart: I absolutely love teaching. It’s a huge privilege to hold young people captive for three years and be able to speak into their lives. Research, however, is much more difficult to love. It’s harder work and the writing process is often agony.

I have to carve out time to write and protect it jealously – Oxford has so many wonderful distractions that it can difficult to sit down and produce. To produce anything you have to deprive yourself and spend a lot of time in isolation thinking and writing. I try to write something every week to ensure I’m still producing, even during a busy term.

I am also the Associate Dean of Graduates in the Law Faculty and I’m enjoying that immensely, too. It’s a lot of administrative work but there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing how the Faculty operates and guiding its direction.

Rhodes Project: What has been the role of mentorship in your life, both as a mentee and mentoring current students?

Mindy Chen-Wishart: I don’t think I’ve been very lucky with my own mentors, except one. Many of my mentors were male and never seemed to expect that I would be an equal. The egos of male mentors sometimes get in the way and often, at some point, they feel threatened by you and your potential. The one mentor with whom I had a very positive relationship was meaningful for two reasons: he validated me and my potential and gently put opportunities in front of me – like the Rhodes Fellowship. In my own mentoring relationships I try to practice both of those. Mentoring requires a lot of empathy and effort in improving the mentee’s self-esteem, especially early in their careers. Oxford lacks a mentorship culture.

Rhodes Project: You have had so much exposure to legal education in jurisdictions around the world. Have you encountered some particularly innovative or progressive models of teaching law?

Mindy Chen-Wishart: I have taught in a lot of law schools in Australasia, Asia and Europe and I can honestly say that Oxford is one of the best. The tutorial system gives the best legal education in the world. It’s ambitious and gives students the right incentive to work, rather than just attending a lecture with 500 other people. Oxford also has a very oral culture – it helps students not be intimidated about expressing their views orally.  The tutorial system also acclimatises students to receiving individual criticism. Those are both invaluable skills that are difficult to develop outside the tutorial system.

However, I do think law students at Oxford would benefit from more clinical or pro bono opportunities. It’s important to give students real-world experience, and particularly important at Oxford when many of our students are relatively privileged.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give young women in academia?

Mindy Chen-Wishart: The institutional climate can be challenging. We are often told there is no gender or race-based discrimination anymore, but I have heard from female colleagues that they still feel like they are not taken seriously; they are not cited or invited to speak at workshops or conferences even on their major research expertise.  To succeed in academia, you must be creative – and to be creative, you must have self-esteem. You have to have lots of self-esteem to take a risk on something that hasn’t been said before.

Unconscious bias is as prevalent in academia as elsewhere. It’s well-known that female faculty members receive worse student evaluations, even on objective criteria like marking, when they have been demonstrably better than their male colleagues. It’s important for young women academics to validate each other’s feelings about situations like this and not feel isolated or alienated.

Rhodes Project: What was your reaction to the Rhodes Trust’s announcement to expand the scholarship to China in 2016?

Mindy Chen-Wishart: I think it can only be a wonderful thing. Oxford has been a bit slow in building partnerships with Chinese universities, but the expansion of the Rhodes scholarship is definitely a step in the right direction. East and West have very different values and worldviews and to understand each other we must step outside of our world and enter their world. Even if we recognise the differences of others, it can be difficult to appreciate their appeal or share in their beliefs. The expansion of the scholarship will help scholars do this.

There are, of course, mercenary reasons to do this due to the rising economic power and importance of Asia. Ultimately I think it’s important to understand people from a very different cultural tradition than us, and to be able to translate those values and beliefs across cultures. I am proud of the Rhodes Trust for doing this!

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