Making Excuses for Inappropriate Behaviour?

An interesting article from Otago University’s Critic, about a widely liked and respected man who is also known to push and exceed personal boundaries as law professor.

Otago University was put in the #MeToo spotlight recently over inappropriate drunken sexualised behaviour at it’s summer law camps, with the head of their law faculty, Professor Mark Henaghan in attendance. This year’s camp was cancelled as a result of the publicity.

I have heard outside the University that Professor Henaghan is liked and respected. He is due to move away from Otago shortly (to Auckland University).

Crirtic – Opinion: Are We Making Excuses for Inappropriate Behaviour?

The first time I met Professor Mark Henaghan he put his arm around me and kissed me on the cheek. I was 17 years old in my first week of University and he was the Dean of the Law School. It was a University event so the official photographer probably has photos of me looking very uncomfortable.

That was not a good introduction to law school.

Recent media scrutiny has resulted in Law Camp being cancelled, and suggested that Professor Mark Henaghan was involved in skits that involved naked, drunk 20-year old females. It is right for questions to be asked. A Law Dean has standards to uphold.

Professor Henaghan attended the student-driven Law Camp because he’s a legend among students and they want to invite him.

I believe Professor Henaghan is a genuinely kind-hearted person. He’s a passionate lecturer, a leading voice on children’s rights in New Zealand and an important supporter to generations of students.

I’ve heard similar.

But, that’s no excuse for unprofessional behaviour.

I agree, but it seems that unprofessional behaviour has been excused for a long time.

I was in LAWS101 lectures where Professor Henaghan made leery jokes about the drinking, sex and general debauchery of students. He hugged female lecture theatre technicians coming to help him out and put his arm around female students asking questions after class. We were told by older students to use pink highlighters in our exams because “Mark likes girls”. It’s part of his humour and charm, but still leaves a slightly sleazy taste in the mouth.

Some students sat there asking, ‘was that appropriate?’ But we were told ‘that’s just Mark,’ so we just put up with it.

One person’s acceptance or enjoyment of personal attention from someone in a powerful position can be invasion of another person’s personal space. It can be a welcome squeeze, or unwelcome sleaze.

Obviously, there is a line between unprofessional behaviour and sexual harassment. The University is a place with solid processes for dealing with sexual harassment or assault. As far as I know, no formal complaints of sexual harassment have been made.

Creating an environment where we “just put up with it” at law school doesn’t help change the culture. In fact it makes it harder for people to identify what inappropriate behaviour really looks like.

It’s so easy to make excuses for people. “He could just have no boundaries.” “He’s just a super affectionate person.” “Maybe he doesn’t realise it makes people uncomfortable.”

But, how long do excuses hold up for? Didn’t #metoo start because people have been making excuses for too long? Isn’t it about being able to stop for a moment and ask, “is this normal?”

Fair questions. They can be difficult to have answered when the person making some people uncomfortable is generally liked and popular.

Despite how touchy he may be with people he knows in his personal life, the Dean of the Law School has responsibilities to uphold professional conduct with students.

One would expect and hope so. Apparently not in this case.

Professor Mark Henaghan is loved by generations of Otago students. But, nice people still do inappropriate stuff. It just feels hard to call them out when they’re right there. Maybe this dilemma is why people stay quiet for so long.

If people stay quiet for so long the inappropriate unprofessional behaviour of a university dean remains unaddressed, and year after year students are made to feel uncomfortable about what they feel as sleazy conduct.

It’s worse than one person in power abusing his position, whether knowingly or inadvertently.

It sounds like Professor Henaghan has effectively given University approval to an annual event, by his presence at the summer camp, to student that some are repelled and appalled by.

And his behaviour on campus has given an air of approval to men in power being able to be as physically personal as they please with students, including students he meets for the first time.

Two contrasting views:

Thomson Reuters (8 August 2017): Mark Henaghan – The Legal Luminaries Project

This is the third in a series of in-depth interviews with our esteemed legal leaders; our legal luminaries. Professor Mark Henaghan looks back over his life in the law, speaking candidly about his achievements, offering advice for younger lawyers and discusses what he thinks are the most important legal issues right now.

This is a free forum for Henaghan to talk about his own life and career. It includes:

When you look back what memories come to the fore?

It’s always my first year law classes. I love the openness and interest of the students. They have an endearing mix of naivety, hope, freshness, and exhilaration. It’s the next generation coming through and it’s a thrill and privilege to teach them. I relish the range in those classes. They are lovely young people.

What are your top 3 tips for young lawyers?

  1. Always be courteous to everyone, treat people with kindness. That has a great ongoing positive impact for everyone, including oneself.

What are your survival tips for dealing effectively with stress at varying stages throughout a career in law?

As a young person?

Have people around you. Put support teams in place to protect yourself and others. Be aware enough to know you need to have checks and balances in your life.

ODT (5 March 2018) – Mother ‘disgusted’ at dean’s presence at law camp

The mother of a former student who stripped and took part in jelly wrestling at one of the now notorious University of Otago law camps says she was disgusted the dean of the law faculty seemed to condone the event.

The woman, who did not want to be named, said she was disgusted when she found out her then 18-year-old daughter had been encouraged to jelly wrestle at the camp in 2012, but even more so when she learnt faculty dean Prof Mark Henaghan was present for part of the camp.

Her daughter had been chosen to take part after losing a game of paper, scissors, rock.

“She said everyone was peer pressured to do by other people in her group.”

While Prof Henaghan was not there for the jelly wrestling event, his attendance sent a message it was a sanctioned camp, she said.

“Students get up to a lot of stuff, but the fact that the dean of the school was there made it seem like it was sanctioned  by the school.”

At the time the woman said she thought about making an official complaint to the university, but decided against it.

The summer camp has been severely reprimanded, and Professor Henaghan will no longer be at Otago so won’t attend again

But the overstepping of professional lines by Professor Henaghan (and he wasn’t the only staff problem in the law faculty going by reports) is something that Otago University should address, publicly.

They shouldn’t make excuses for inappropriate behaviour of staff, nor ignore it.

But a liked person being to personal and in some senses sleazy (to some students) may continue to be swept under the campus rug.

Leave a comment


  1. David

     /  March 14, 2018

    They are adult law students surely they can cope with a tactile lecturer of his calibre and as for the law camps you cant tell me that the attendees dont know that its that sort of a weekend before they voluntarily sign up. Its not an event for snowflakes and if one looks at whats happening at Spring Break at the moment and the outrages in the UK its just part of growing up and university life, lets not suck the life out of life its all getting a bit victorian.

    • Corky

       /  March 14, 2018

      ”Let’s not suck the life out of life it’s all getting a bit Victorian.”.

      Damn fine wordage, Dave.

    • Gezza

       /  March 14, 2018

      Where’s it all going to end though, David?
      Next thing you’ll have jaded right-wing ageing yuppies former tv presenters babbling any old nonsense & wearing their Mrs’s Jackets just to try & attract impressionable halfwits.

      • David

         /  March 14, 2018

        Which is nothing new Gezza and the world survived. Clearly this lecturer is of a particular personality but sounds like he was well liked and good at his job which lets face it is a rare thing for a lecturer but he did no one any harm.
        The #metoo movement will have unfortunate consequences and I doubt there will be much perspective from this campaign.

        • Gezza

           /  March 14, 2018

          Hang on. I better read the post.

        • Gezza

           /  March 14, 2018

          Ah. Sounds to me like a misunderstanding. The prof thinks being a university lecturer is the same thing as being a university lecherer.

    • Revel

       /  March 15, 2018

      He was clearly a left-leaner. A right-wing lecturer would have been given the high jump from the #metoo twerps.

  2. Blazer

     /  March 14, 2018

    Nature has wired men to attempt coitus…with females…its irresistable,and extremely hard to…suppress.

  3. duperez

     /  March 14, 2018

    Changes will come from publicity like this about Henaghan. Strict rules and guidelines will be drawn up to define exactly what people can say and do.

    The link might be tenuous but things like a “teacher cannot touch a child” in any circumstances will be the rule. So a teacher can’t intervene physically in a fight to stop it or save someone but will have to use words. Polite acceptable ones at that.

    Here are two who should be down the road.


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