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Sasha Borissenko: Meet Khylee Quince, the first Māori dean of law at a NZ university

Associate Professor Khylee Quince has been appointed interim dean of law at AUT University. She is the first Māori dean of law at a New Zealand university, and perhaps the first indigenous dean of law internationally.

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Born and raised in Auckland, Quince – of Te Roroa/Ngapuhi and Ngati Porou – considers herself to be a “hardcore citizen of Mount Roskill”. She lives in the “multicultural paradise” with her children and partner – she’s not married, as “I like to say I want to keep my options open, even though we’ve been together since we were 14”.

She decided she wanted to become a lawyer at 11, after watching LA Law.

“It looked glamorous, I knew nothing about law. No one in my family had gone to university before, and my brother, sister and I were the first to complete school certificate. I had no higher frame of reference but Jimmy Smits was ethnic, cool, and a lawyer so it seemed a good idea to do the same,” she says.

When Quince told her father of her aspirations, he rang the Law Society and asked whether Quince could meet a young female lawyer.

“When you come from a community where you are the first to do something, no one knows what path to take,” she remembers.

Years later, Quince asked the lawyer whether she remembered her. “Hilariously she had no idea who I was. I was surprised because meeting her was a major turning point in my life. It’s now a mantra of mine: I come across thousands of students and I try to think they won’t remember what I say, but they will remember how I make them feel.”

Quince went on to study at Auckland University. “I never wanted to do anything other than criminal law. It was on the television. Court work looked exciting and I wanted to deal with ordinary people and help them with their problems.”

She worked for firms for a couple of years doing criminal, family, and general law before being coaxed into teaching at the university.

“Out of a sense of obligation, I decided to do it,” Quinc says.

“Teaching was never a part of the plan but when I first stood at the lectern, I absolutely loved it. I actually come from a family of teachers so it’s probably in my DNA, and teaching has the same performative elements of court.”

Quince also decided to pursue academia because there’s a real lack of Māori academics, she says.

“There’s a strong link between Māori academics and change: you need bodies on the ground to do that work.”

While there is more of an appetite to include indigenous voices and content, the numbers of Māori academics haven’t significantly changed in 20 years, she says.

That’s why Quince is involved in a research project funded by the Boram Foundation that aims to implement tikanga as the first law of the country at the six law schools across the country.

“Universities compete for students, funding, research, and there isn’t much collaboration with the law schools as a collective. But we need to have good, sustainable Treaty [of Waitangi] education and an understanding of tikanga Māori. If there is no Māori academic on staff, it means students mightn’t get taught this content. It shouldn’t matter where you study,” she says.

It’s important for all law students and people working in the law profession to have an appreciation and understanding of tikanga Māori because tikanga is the first law of the country and the Treaty the founding blueprint of Aotearoa, New Zealand, she says.

“Lawyers have to work with the population of this country so they have to reflect their values, experience and background. People think tikanga Māori isn’t relevant to commercial or private law, but in the post Treaty settlement world, Māori own big business. It’s also attractive in the global sense and it makes us unique.”

After 18 years at Auckland University, Quince decided to take up a position at Auckland University of Technology because she could work in Manakau, where the School of Law operates a second campus. “It seemed an exciting proposition to take the law to the community in Manakau.”

With the retirement of the former Dean, Professor Charles Rickett, the interim position is an opportunity for Quince to get her feet under the desk before the permanent position is advertised in the international market, she says.

“I’m excited to see a different kind of curriculum and pedagogy. It’s a young law school at just over 10 years old. It is not cemented in its ways, and this was a selling point for me. If I wasn’t going to do the job, then who was, and if not now, when?”

The response has been overwhelming, she says. The official announcement via Twitter garnered more than 8000 retweets in 24 hours, for example.

“Being Māori is still important, and it’s still a story. I’m an ordinary mum of three kids who wants transformative change. I’m a bit concerned about the weight of expectations, but I’m going to take it one day at a time,” Quince says.

Sasha Borissenko is a freelance journalist who has reported extensively on the law industry.

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