In pursuit of equity and excellence

09 Jun, 2022

Her original plan was to practise law - not teach it. But after 24 years and thousands of students, Associate Professor Khylee Quince has taken the helm of New Zealand’s most diverse school of law and become the first Māori dean of a law school in Aotearoa, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

Three years into her career as a family lawyer and criminal litigator and loving it, Khylee (who is Te Roroa, Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou) was asked a favour. There were very few Māori academics in law schools at the time and only two at the University of Auckland, she says.

“One of them, my teacher, asked me to come back to help her out. “I went out of a very strong sense of obligation to my teacher and the minute I took my first lecture I absolutely loved it.”

It was 80s TV that had ignited her ambitions. “I was obsessed with LA Law, from a really early age I was interested in law. Legal processes, what lawyers did – particularly courtroom work – looked really exciting to me.”

With no lawyers in her whānau or extended community, her dad called the Law Society and organised for 11-year-old Khylee to meet a young female lawyer. She recalls meeting that same lawyer again more recently. She couldn’t recall meeting Khylee.

That second encounter provided another important insight to apply to her teaching. “The reason I often think about that is because it happens to me a lot – I have a pretty good memory for names and faces and students, you won’t remember all of them but they will all remember you.

“People will remember the way you treat them, so it’s really important to me to treat people with that in mind.”

Khylee is well lined up with the values and kaupapa of the Law School and AUT. She says AUT’s conversion from a polytechnic to a university more than two decades ago allowed it to take some of the really good parts of a polytechnic – “the whakapapa or DNA” – and transport that into a university.

“Having more of an industry and employment focus, having less of an ‘elitist’ focus.” What do we want our law graduates to be like and what sort of capabilities do we want them to have? “Social justice is a key one for me. I really believe in the values in AUT’s strategic plan. It grinds my gears when organisations put out strategic plans that aren’t living documents, that mean nothing in the what, how and why of your teaching and learning.”

And what she likes best are the values: Tāwhaitia te ara o te tika, te pono me te aroha, kia piki ki te taumata tiketike; Follow the path of integrity, respect, and compassion; scale the heights of achievement. It’s these values Khylee wants woven into every graduate – “Tika – means to be correct and proper, and then pono – ethics – is to be just and appropriate. Just because you can, you have to have the ethic filter and ask, ‘well, should I?’” Probably the most important value, she says, is aroha – “Love, compassion: that’s the social justice and emotional aspect.

“Law is often presented as unemotive, but to conflate professionalism with being unemotive is entirely incorrect. The real meaning of aroha is ‘to turn your attention and dedication to a particular thing’. So it’s not to love it, necessarily – the ha is your breath, aro is direction – so ‘to turn your breath’ is to literally turn your attention and all of your focus on the person or the problem in front of you.”

Khylee delights in the “incredible diversity” of her student population. In ethnicity: “About 28% of our cohort is Indian or other subcontinent ethnicities, then the next highest is Pasifika at 22%, then Pakeha and Māori.” By age: “Over 40% of our cohort are not school leavers, or they’re retraining, changing careers. We have a high percentage of middle-aged Māori and Pasifika mums.

“That doesn’t look like any other law school in the country, it’s pretty special.”

But that’s not the full story. “Diversity gets you so far, it will get you to the dance but it won’t allow you win the competition. It might change the look of the dance, but the skills and attributes to be a successful lawyer are the same.

“It’s important, at the same time that we’re pumping out the diversity and inclusion message that we are not watering down the excellence message. We have a really high percentage of high performing students.”

To demonstrate the quality of the school’s graduates, she points to alumni working for Crown Solicitors, all top commercial firms, community law practices, in government and clerking in the courts. An alumnus from the school, Justice Layne Harvey, was last year sworn in as a Judge of Te Kōti Matua – the High Court in the first bilingual High Court swearing-in ceremony in Aotearoa. “The school is really young, and in the past five to seven years, we’re in the position where we’ve got graduates in all the important spaces.”

To provide Aotearoa with a quality legal profession that truly represents the communities it serves, Khylee believes in a dual focus on equity and excellence. It’s important to keep finding ways to make law accessible.

Getting into schools early through partnership is important, she says. “You’re not asking people to make the decision at 11 like I did – you’re asking ‘do you like these kinds of things?’, and being able to influence subject choice to keep the door open.”

Making universities open community spaces is another one. “AUT does that really well. South Campus in particular – my friend and colleague (Assistant Vice- Chancellor Pacific Advancement and South Campus) Walter Fraser has this vision and practice of creating what he calls a ‘sticky campus’,” she says, “When you go there, you want to stay there, you can come here, do your study, eat together, do sport. It’s a community asset.

“We have highly successful, high performing students who are attracted to that, particularly the ability to study in Manukau amongst a highly diverse general community.

“City Campus is much the same. Making the campus open and accessible – AUT does that well.” AUT’s Law School also does a few other things differently in terms of the accessibility kaupapa, Khylee says.

One is breaking down the competitive ethos. “Law schools thrive on that stuff – the first class you go to you do the ‘look left, look right, look in front of you, look behind you – only one of you will survive until second year. You know, ridiculous Hunger Games, horrible anxiety-inducing stuff. We take quite the opposite anti-competitive approach.”

While she was still settling into her role, AUT announced the appointment of Damon Salesa as AUT’s Vice-Chancellor. How does she feel, being the first Māori dean of law to work with the first Pacific person to hold the position of Vice-Chancellor at a New Zealand university?

“I am really excited, Damon and I met in a first-year history paper in 1991 and I knew from then that he was going to be someone pretty special – I get really emotional actually to think that 30 years later he’d be my boss. I’m over the moon, beyond excited.

“One of his goals that I fundamentally agree with – people of any preparation should be able to come here and we’ll come to you.”

Read more inspiring stories

This story was originally published in Insight, the magazine for AUT alumni and friends. Read the most recent issue of Insight for more stories of groundbreaking research and great AUT graduates who are making a difference around the world.

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