The lore of the man

The inimitable Mark Henaghan departs the University of Otago at the end of the month, leaving behind a reputation as big as his personality. Bruce Munro spent an afternoon with the internationally-lauded, occasionally lambasted, law professor and found an exuberant, compassionate boy who refused to grow up.

It was a scene unparalleled in the 149-year history of the University of Otago.

A lecturer had given his final lesson. He was not retiring, simply going to another job up north.

Yet, his students, past and present, some of the most capable at New Zealand's premier university, stood, in their hundreds, forming a human corridor that stretched 200m.

Prof Mark Henaghan, whose career has influenced generations of law students and has shaped family...
Prof Mark Henaghan, whose career has influenced generations of law students and has shaped family law in New Zealand and overseas, says one of his great heroes is a neighbour who cared for his mother after his father died. Photo: Linda Robertson

And they applauded.

The clapping began as Prof Mark Henaghan, retiring dean of the Law Faculty, left the Archway Four lecture theatre at the conclusion of his last Family Law lecture at the university.

Cheering erupted as he came into view, looked shocked, then beamed, before dancing a jig and began to walk the colonnade.

He paused often to shake a hand here, give a hug there. The applause continued unabated for the several minutes it took him to walk through their midst: an auditory, extended exclamation mark on a 41-year career.

What a contrast to the recrimination of mere months earlier when Prof Henaghan found himself near the eye of an invective storm centred on unseemly behaviour by young people at law student camps he had visited.

Law students and staff welcome Prof Henaghan to a farewell event in University of Otago Union...
Law students and staff welcome Prof Henaghan to a farewell event in University of Otago Union Hall. Photo: Supplied
The opportunity to spend some time with the law professor, who has almost legendary status at University of Otago, was welcome. The juxtaposition between the two recent events made the meeting truly intriguing.

The clapping throng, the angry letter writers; neither were present in the ninth-floor Law Faculty staff library. Just the professor, smiling, chatting, seated in front of a wall lined with thick bound volumes replete with decades of statutes and legal cases.

Prof Henaghan's entire illustrious career to date has been spent at University of Otago. In fact, his whole adult life has been lived out here.

"Just out that window is Uni Col," he says, pointing to the multi-storey student hall of residence.

"I started there in 1972. I was 17 when I arrived; fresh off the boat from Timaru."

He laughs loudly.

"I got a basement room ... It was wonderful. I got to meet a lot of people because, as it was a basement floor, all the young men who wanted to come in after-hours to catch up with their girlfriends came in through my window."

Study was not the focus to begin with, even though he had enrolled in legal systems, the competitive entry winnowing fork that decides who does and who does not get to follow dreams of a career in law.

Partway through the year, he met Aimy, a studious Vietnamese exchange student. At the end of that year, he spent his last $8.50 to take her out to dinner.

The next year they studied together every night.

"Before I knew it, I was doing much better. My marks improved dramatically in the second year."

Retired High Court judge Paul Heath says Prof Henaghan's writing on family law has helped judges...
Retired High Court judge Paul Heath says Prof Henaghan's writing on family law has helped judges throughout the country. Photo: Bruce Munro

That hearty laugh, again.

The future professor was admitted to the law honours programme. He later also completed a degree in politics. His future wife went on to a PhD in chemistry and a degree in accountancy.

On the cusp of being a teenager, Prof Henaghan had had every intention of becoming a Catholic priest. By the time he was studying at university, his plan was to become a criminal defence lawyer.

But life is full of serendipity, he says.

In the middle of his final-year university exams, his father died of a heart attack during the inaugural Timaru fun run.

It was one of the toughest experiences of Prof Henaghan's life.

"I still miss him terribly. He was only 51. I got him in to running ... and he loved it.

"Being the eldest child, I didn't really have time to grieve properly."

Prof Henaghan applied to a local law firm but they never replied. Then, Ian Muir - "the most radical lecturer on the faculty in those days, and a lovely man" - suggested he become a teaching fellow.

Four years later, he was appointed a lecturer, focusing not on criminal law but family law.

At the turn of the millennium, he was made professor and became dean of the faculty when the late-Prof Richard Sutton stepped down.

Law and leadership. Both seem to have been a good fit for Prof Henaghan.

"The underlying reason why I love being in the law is because the least powerful can have a voice through the law ... It guides me a lot."

He learnt a lot about being dean from a dozen years coaching sports teams.

"It was perfect preparation. The players are like your colleagues. You have to bring the best out in every player. Every player has their strengths and weaknesses. You want them to believe in themselves and work together."

Family law became his specialty, his love and his area of enduring influence.

"I fell in to it. I did my dissertation in it and really enjoyed it.

"Family law is important because all people are affected by it. The moment you are born, your parents become your guardians, which gives them legal duties and rights in relation to you.

"It is at the basis of all our close relationships and all our ways of thriving or not thriving."

Without ever practising law, Prof Henaghan has had an impact in many thousands of families through his work; work that has influenced the content and application of law here and overseas.

Retired High Court judge Paul Heath, who happened to be visiting Dunedin on the day of Prof Henaghan's final lecture, was full of praise.

"I'm delighted to be here ... As a judge, Mark's writing on family law was inspirational in finding ideas that were helpful for the judiciary," Heath said.

The contribution Prof Henaghan is most proud of is his work, along with Assoc Prof Nicola Taylor and the late-Prof Anne Smith, to get the New Zealand law system to listen to the views of children.

"It was a long battle ... and it is still a battle, because the system still doesn't listen to children as well as it could."

Relocation cases is another area he did a lot of work in. If one parent moves out of town, how is the care of the children best organised? His research has been used a bit by judges here and has been included in law in British Columbia, Canada.

Final-year law student Bronwyn Bailey (22) says Prof Henaghan's compassionate, person-centred...
Final-year law student Bronwyn Bailey (22) says Prof Henaghan's compassionate, person-centred approach to law has shaped her thinking. Photo: Bruce Munro

A third area of his research that he places weight on is the fair distribution of property when a relationship ends.

"The parent who stays at home suffers economically. Fifty: fifty sharing is not fair.

"It is good that the Law Commission is coming up with proposals to address it."

During the past four decades, Prof Henaghan, in addition to lecturing, research and his duties as dean, has been involved in a staggering array of significant initiatives. This year alone, he is on a Royal Society gene editing committee, examining the implications of this new technology; the family violence death review committee, looking for patterns that could lead to interventions; the Department of Corrections academic advisory group, drawing together the latest research on effective ways of reducing offending; a committee running programmes to upskill judges in all aspects of their job; and he is chairman of the Beasley Institute, which researches issues affecting people with intellectual disabilities.

In 2014, in recognition of his contribution, Prof Henaghan became only the second academic worldwide to be made an Associate Fellow of the International Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a global grouping of lawyers recognised as the most experienced and skilled family law specialists in their respective countries.

In March, it was brickbats not plaudits being dished out, when allegations emerged of drunkenness, nudity and jelly-wrestling at camps organised by Society of Otago University Law Students (Souls) for second-year law students.

A university spokeswoman told media that Prof Henaghan had visited the annual camps. He was decried by a "disgusted" parent of a former law student. Newspaper articles were written and online debate raged, but he made no public response.

This year's camp was cancelled and a report commissioned by the university.

Strong negative opinion about Prof Henaghan, expressed by a few people at the time, is in contrast to the enormous goodwill voiced towards him at the student-organised farewell in Union Hall after his final lecture.

Bronwyn Bailey (22) was ferrying dozens of pizza boxes into the hall for hundreds of students and staff to consume after the speeches and songs in honour of Prof Henaghan. A final-year law student, Bailey lauded his personal touch and his people-centred approach to the law.

"It is crazy how many lives Mark has touched," she said.

"He recognises everybody's face and knows their name. He'll stop and catch up with you.

"He has taught us to have compassion and time for people. It has definitely shaped my thinking about how I will practise law.

"He's the sort of person you aspire to be."

Mark Henaghan (18) holding a beer mug, during St Patrick's Day celebrations with friends at...
Mark Henaghan (18) holding a beer mug, during St Patrick's Day celebrations with friends at University College hall of residence in 1972. Photo: Supplied

Those sentiments were repeated time and again on the day.

Prof Andrew Geddis, who was taught law by Prof Henaghan in the early-1990s, said he was an inspirational teacher for generations of students.

"He is loved for the man he is and for the time and commitment he gives to everyone who crosses his path," Prof Geddis said.

"He supported me throughout my studies at Otago and then as dean he hired me back in 2000. So, I owe much of my career to his influence.

"Mark's message has always been to be academically excellent, to know your material, but also to see how it affects real people in the real world. That's a message that needs to be heard at universities all the time."

Standing near the back of the Union Hall throng was Associate Prof Nicola Wheen.

"He's passionate. He brings law to life," Prof Wheen said.

She described him as a "very human dean".

"About eight years ago, one lunchtime, I stepped out from between two cars to cross George St and was hit by a vehicle. I sustained a head injury.

"Mark's response was, no problem. He organised replacement lecturers. There was no question of his support.

"We knew he always had our back," she added.

Prof Henaghan was advised to make no public comment during the law camp furore. He has held his tongue, until now.

"It wasn't particularly pleasant at the time," he says.

"I felt there was a lot of stuff that was highly inaccurate."

He felt most sorry for the students.

"They put a lot of work and thought into [the camp] and it builds tremendous collegiality.

"But unfortunately, when you get hit by a bit of a press tsunami, which it was - there was lots of stuff that was very salacious and taken out of context - it is very difficult ...

"Just to give one example: the heading `Jelly wrestling'. Well, what are people to think? It was a kid's paddling pool with a bit of jelly in the bottom. And kids fully clothed, kneeling ... and trying to push each other out like sumo wrestling. But that's not what people imagine.

"I did learn a lot about how disappointing it can be when things are taken out of context."

He said he used to go out to the camps, but for just one reason.

"To make sure they're all safe."

The law camp report, made public late last week after several delays, concluded sexualised and drunken behaviour occurred regularly and that some students found it "a deeply disturbing and unpleasant experience".

Assoc Prof Nicola Wheen says law faculty staff always knew Prof Henaghan had their back. Photo:...
Assoc Prof Nicola Wheen says law faculty staff always knew Prof Henaghan had their back. Photo: ODT files

The review suggested that changes, such as allowing cellphones on camp to reduce the likelihood of unwanted behaviour, could enable the camps to continue.

The report came out after the Otago Daily Times' initial interview with Prof Henaghan.

This week, asked for his response, Prof Henaghan said he was sorry to hear a small number of students had had a bad experience, but was pleased the camps would continue.

"I was sorry to hear that six students of the approximately 6000 who have attended the camps over the years had a negative experience," he said.

"A great deal of work has been put in by the Society of Otago Law Students to ensure the Camps are a good experience for everyone. Every year improvements are made to the camps and that is reflected in the report that, for the vast majority of students, the camp is a very positive experience.

"The students have been awarded community awards for the community service they do at the camps and publicly congratulated in a letter to the ODT by the Oamaru Heritage Trust earlier this year for all the work they have done for the trust."

In the quiet of the law faculty library, links between the law camps episode, society and the law are teased out.

Are we becoming too easily offended as a society? Too ready to take offence? Eschewing common sense for legalism? Too bound up in the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law?

The law tends to reflect society's values, Prof Henaghan replies.

"There's a wonderful saying by an American philosopher, `In hell there will be nothing but law, and due process will be duly enforced'.

"Because, in a way, the more law you have, the less you have to trust people.

"The less you trust people, the more distrustful they become and so the more law you need in order to trust them."

A good society would not have too much law, because people would do the right thing, he says.

But, in New Zealand, we have a lot of law.

"I do think trust is important in any society.

"In Japan, they are not so legalistic, because they have a society where you'd rather talk it through.

"We are moving very much towards America, where you litigate everything.

"There's a lot to be done to make sure we have a society where everyone feels their point of view is taken account of and people don't feel they are bullied and pushed around."

The conversation, more than an hour old, continues to find its own fascinating path.

Prof Henaghan's reflections on universities draw on almost half a century of experience.

"The person who first turned me on to what university could be was dear old Jim Flynn."

Prof Flynn, the global authority on IQ, taught a paper in political philosophy that Prof Henaghan took as a first-year student.

"He talked about metaphysics and epistemology. I couldn't even spell them. I didn't know what he was talking about.

"But I was fascinated by him ... He inspired me to see a world of ideas and bigger and different ways of doing things. It was a formative moment for me."

Law lecturer Prof Andrew Geddis says Prof Henaghan's dual focus on academic excellence and...
Law lecturer Prof Andrew Geddis says Prof Henaghan's dual focus on academic excellence and understanding the impact of the law on people has influenced generations of New Zealand lawyers. Photo: ODT files
In those days, lecturers just walked into the room and taught, without providing handouts or online lecture outlines.

"You just had to work it out ... which was good for you in the long run."

It might be too late to reverse the change, but he questions the wisdom of the shift to semesters, with final exams twice a year, rather than whole-year subjects.

"It shortens the amount of time students have to understand subjects.

"It gives them a chance to do more areas. But on the other hand, I do think we sacrifice depth. Once you learn how to learn deeply, then you can apply it to anything."

He has reservations about an increasingly corporatised, specialised, high-pressure education system.

"That's not a great education. A great education comes from reading widely across a broad range of subjects.

"If you give people a wide map, they will find their way around it. But if you give them a narrow map, that's all they'll do."

Universities have become more conservative, he says.

"Because of the corporate side, they worry about anything that might look like they are pushing the limits. But universities should be the very place where you are right out on the cutting edge as much as you can be. If you don't do it now, it will be too late once you are out into the workforce.

"So, I do think we need to review and look at what we are doing at universities."

They have become more competitive, with less co-operation between academics in different institutions, he says.

"Which I think is absolutely pointless when we are all publicly funded.

"We've all got the same mission. We're all trying to improve knowledge and produce the best graduates we can.

"The greatest pleasure I get from my job is when I meet graduates and they are doing wonderful things. And not all practising law either.

"That's the great satisfaction of university. There is no prescription with it. You learn the skills of thinking and working out solutions and then can take that to all sorts of areas to make a difference."

Having a purpose in life is important, says Prof Henaghan, who was raised Catholic, is inspired by Jesus, is unsure whether God exists and reads the writings of a Buddhist nun each night before going to sleep.

In 1961, wearing his Sunday best, Mark Henaghan prepares to take his first communion at the...
In 1961, wearing his Sunday best, Mark Henaghan prepares to take his first communion at the Catholic basilica in Timaru. Prof Henaghan says of his 7-year-old self: "At this stage of my life, i was keen on being a priest and showing early signs of promise."
Prof Henaghan quotes Nazi concentration camp survivor and philosopher Victor Frankl.

"Frankl says we shouldn't be asking what can we get out of life, but `What is life asking of you?'

"Life is asking things of us all the time. Is there someone who needs something? Rather than, what's in it for me? Because I think, when you ask what's in it for you, it's self-destructive in the end."

The dedication and support of the nuns that educated him are one source of inspiration to live an others-focused life. Another is Dorothy McKay, a neighbour who lived with his mother, Mary, for six months after his father's sudden death. She kept cooking her own husband's meals, but lived at the Henaghans'.

"She just moved in to keep my mother company. I think that's just magnificent. You need people like that to keep the world going round ... who just quietly do what needs to be done."

Unfortunately, several months after the death of her husband, Mary had a mental and emotional breakdown.

It was to be another enormously difficult challenge for Prof Henaghan.

"It was total depression. She reached the point where she just couldn't do anything ... the lights just go out.

"I had to decide - it was the hardest decision - the psychiatrist said we've got to try electric shock [therapy].

"I'm so glad I made the decision, but it was scary at the time.

"It worked a treat. Unbelievable. She never looked back. Never had another depressive episode. Amazing."

Referring to Dorothy, who gave so much support to his mother, Prof Henaghan notes her positive attitude despite, and perhaps because of, her selflessness.

"She was always cheerful. Those people always are.

"I always think of Dorothy when I am tired. What would Dorothy do?"

In response to that question, Prof Henaghan is planning a shift to Auckland.

Both his children ended up in law and are now both living in New Zealand's largest city. His first grandchild has arrived. So, after all these years, he is upping sticks and taking a position as a family law lecturer at the University of Auckland, to be closer to family.

A life lived asking "What would Dorothy do?" does not mean there is no down time.

Prof Henaghan reads a lot. He enjoys watching cricket regularly. He played rugby until this year; cycles Saturday and Sunday mornings and skips for 30 minutes every day.

And, he loves the movies.

"To me, one of the greatest joys in life is sitting in a dark picture theatre with an icecream, a little bit of Coke and maybe some Jaffas, if I'm really having a good time, and watching a movie."

He laughs again, a fulsome laugh, abandoned to the moment.

Loud laughter is not considered appropriate in some settings, he admits.

"But I think loud laughter is the greatest thing you can do. You can't plan it, but if it happens, laugh loud, uncontrollably, if you can."

Sitting, listening to the stories, the laughter, the compassion, the sincere belief in people's potential to succeed and do good, the thought comes that there is more than a little bit of the boy in Prof Henaghan. That Mark Henaghan, the boy, is key to understanding the man. Or, maybe, is the man.

Aged 10, Mark Henaghan won the South Canterbury under-11 triple jump championship for Timaru's...
Aged 10, Mark Henaghan won the South Canterbury under-11 triple jump championship for Timaru's Marist Intermediate Catholic School. "I only won because no-one else could do a hop, step and jump, but i was very proud of my first medal."
As a 3-year-old living above the shops in the main street of Timaru he would wander up the street, in and out of shops, chatting to passers-by.

"You couldn't do it now. I would go down to the railway station and talk to the railway workers."

At 4, he insisted his mother buy him a school uniform.

"I'd wander around pretending to be a school boy, talking to people. I just loved it.

"I didn't realise I was training for what I'd be doing."

That enthusiasm for people and life continued.

"I had great mates ... Sometimes we wouldn't get home [from school] until nine o'clock because we'd be sitting on a street corner yarning away."

Most of his school reports mentioned his out-going nature. A number of them added that he was getting in trouble for talking too much in class.

In the first year of secondary schooling, he became the impromptu speaker for the school.

"I was into everything - drama, debating, sports, anything going ... and I loved it.

"I wasn't the kid studying to be dux, much to my mother's disappointment."

He was, however, elected head prefect by his fellow pupils, to the horror of the teachers.

More than once, as head prefect, he was threatened with expulsion. But always for following his conscience.

"If there were certain rules I didn't agree with, I would let them know."

Pupils were not allowed to transport other pupils in their cars. One rainy day, he gave two friends a lift.

The headmaster was at the gate and threatened to suspend him. The young Henaghan, who was winning debating prizes, argued the point.

"I also never reported on kids who sneaked out of church. They weren't too happy with that, but I thought boys will be boys."

There is no advice he would give his younger self, except for encouragement to keep doing what he was doing.

You need people to challenge the status quo and not necessarily go with the flow, he says.

"I clearly remember once in class, a teacher was strapping a boy. He got strapped lots. But he was a boy in a foster home, a boy with problems.

"I actually rushed up and grabbed the strap. I couldn't stand it any more ... I think we should always step in when things aren't right."

He jokes that getting in trouble is the story of his life. Really?

"No, not really. But I've always believed that when you get involved in something, you get fully involved. You don't stand on the periphery and guard over other people.

"Everyone should be free to be who they are ... It makes the world so much richer.

"But there are hidden rules all the time, which I've always found difficult, because not everyone fits them.

"I'm probably too much who I am, sometimes," he says, laughing.

Long and loud.



What a truly wonderful gentleman. Best wishes for a long life and much happiness.
He is a loss to the University and the region.
We will miss you.
And to think that he has been brought down by petty spite. A poor reflection on the dismal characters involved.