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.
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. But, that’s no excuse for unprofessional behaviour.
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.
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.
I applaud Professor Henaghan, Otago Law School and other law schools for taking a strong stance in the face of sexual harassment allegations at Russell McVeagh. They are right that changing the law profession’s culture starts with law schools.
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?”
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.
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.