A top Auckland University of Technology (AUT) academic has apologised "unreservedly" to a former colleague who accused him of a prolonged campaign of sexual harassment.

Dr Marisa Paterson, director of the Centre for Gambling Research at Canberra's Australian National University (ANU), laid a complaint against AUT's Pro Vice Chancellor Max Abbott last August.

The five-page complaint, seen by the Herald, details allegations of "prolonged and persistent stalking, sexual harassment, physical harassment and bullying" against Abbott.

 Dr Marisa Paterson. Photo / Supplied
Dr Marisa Paterson. Photo / Supplied

The complaint covers more than two years of communication between the pair, including numerous sexually explicit texts from Abbott.


It said she had attempted to manage the situation herself but now found the situation "overwhelming and threatening to both her professional and personal life".

In a statement to the Herald, AUT confirmed that Abbott had unreservedly apologised and agreed to have no future contact with Paterson.

Abbott told Stuff he was "surprised, and indeed shocked" by Paterson's complaint as he did not believe he'd been harassing her. He had apologised to her and undertaken to cease any further communication.

Professor Max Abbott is presented with CNZM, for services to health, science and education by Governor General Sir Gerry Mataparae in April 2016. Photo / Supplied
Professor Max Abbott is presented with CNZM, for services to health, science and education by Governor General Sir Gerry Mataparae in April 2016. Photo / Supplied

In a letter to Paterson, obtained by the Herald, he said: "I can understand something of what was involved emotionally in you making this complaint. I apologise for my recent texts and for things that I have said or done over the years that have caused you distress. This apology is given deeply and sincerely."

ANU sent the complaint to AUT, asking that the university apologise to Paterson, ensure Abbott cut off all contact, fully investigate what had happened, and make sure Abbott did not repeat the behaviour with other women.

ANU also asked that Abbott withdraw from work that might put him in a position to affect Paterson's career.

But Paterson claims that nearly a year later AUT has still not properly investigated her claims. She called the organisation's response "appalling".

Professor Max Abbott. Photo / Supplied
Professor Max Abbott. Photo / Supplied

"It is an enormous thing to make a complaint like this, it took me two years. When AUT turned around and palmed me off with an apology from Max Abbott (especially when it was made clear that I never wanted any further contact from him – and I found his apology very distressing) – I felt so disrespected. They completely disrespected my complaint and what it took to come forward.


"The major lesson out of this for me is how important it is for workplaces to have proper policies and processes in place to deal with these serious sexual harassment complaints – because if they don't, this is what happens."

Abbott and Paterson met at an industry conference in 2016. Paterson said the relationship had started out professional and friendly, with Abbott acting as a "supportive mentor". But after they met again in 2017, and she told him her marriage had broken down, communications became sexual.

Abbott messaged Paterson up to a dozen times a day, frequently regarding sex.

Paterson said that early on she had twice engaged in sexting with Abbott, including sending him a picture of her in a bra in November 2017 after previously deflecting his attention as much as she could.

She told the Herald she thought the picture would "get him off my back".

Paterson's complaint said she felt she needed to "manage" Abbott's attention as he was a leader in her field and could influence her career. It was "highly important for me to have a constructive working relationship with him".


Abbott is esteemed in Paterson's field of gambling research. He was the first director of New Zealand's Mental Health Foundation appointed following the 1977 Telethon, and has been a dean at AUT for nearly three decades. He is a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to health, science and education.

An ANU spokesperson told the Herald sexual harassment was never okay and the university took allegations of this unacceptable behaviour seriously.

"Such behaviour does not align with our values or our culture.

"Our priority is always the wellbeing and welfare of our community, and if anyone brings such allegations to us, they are heard, they are believed and they are supported."

ANU would not comment on individual cases due to privacy, but said: "We have provided AUT with comprehensive information on this matter and requested for them to investigate as is appropriate."

An AUT spokesperson told the Herald the matter was taken seriously and AUT sought to resolve the issue.


"There was a review of material provided by ANU (who specified we should not contact their staff member) and interviews with our staff member. He has apologised unreservedly, agreed to have no future contact with the ANU staff member and also agreed to withdraw from, or not accept, any position that might affect the ANU staff member.

"As recently as the last week of April, we contacted ANU to remind them we were still waiting for them to communicate any further concerns. Nothing has been received. Our letter to ANU on 22nd April confirms this.

"We have not received other complaints about our staff member."