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SOAS Accused of Unethical Handling of Private Funding

Mel Plant, BA Arabic and Turkish

The SOAS Spirit has been approached with allegations that high level SOAS management figures have unethically managed the Alphawood Foundation funds, donated to the department in 2013. Dr. Angela Chiu, a research associate of the department and a member of SOAS’ South East Asian Studies centre, has revealed that the scope of scholarships funded by the Alphawood Foundation has been retroactively changed, drastically affecting the studies of two prospective postgraduate students.

The Alphawood Foundation, a Chicago-based ‘grant-making private foundation,’ donated £20 million to the university 2013 in order to ‘advance the study and preservation of Buddhist and Hindu art in Southeast Asia’ at SOAS. £15 million of the grant was assigned to the foundation of the Southeast Asian Art Academic Programme, an “ambitious academic programme that seeks to build on SOAS’ world-leading research expertise and existing institutional links in the Southeast Asia region,” as well as funding 3 new academic posts within the department.

The remaining £5 million of the grant was dedicated to generous scholarships which fund the postgraduate studies of students from Southeast Asia. The scholarships not only cover the tuition costs of Masters and PhD studies, but also cover living and visa costs and flights.

The latest round of applications for the grant, which closed on the 18th December 2015, specified only that prospective students’ studies should cover “Southeast Asian art, particularly Buddhist or Hindu art.” However, two students due to begin their studies in September 2016, who had already been awarded places at SOAS and Alphawood scholarships, were retroactively informed that they must change the scope of their studies from that of contemporary Southeast Asian art to Southeast Asian art in antiquity. The two students, one a PhD candidate and the other a MA candidate, in question will remain anonymous throughout the article.

I was told funding on contemporary art has to be stopped.” – prospective MA student

Though the most recent advertisement for the Alphawood scholarships specifies that studies should “advance the study and preservation of Buddhist and Hindu art in Southeast Asia,” at no point have public notices on the scholarships specified that Alphawood sponsored studies should cover only Southeast Asian art in antiquity. The PhD student commented that “Hindu and Buddhist art are an important and formative part” of modern Southeast Asian art, and that in fact “continuity and the inter-relationships between the pre modern to modern to contemporary” are crucial to the study of modern Southeast Asian art. Within the context of the student’s comments that Buddhism and Hinduism are “interchangeable… with the modern and contemporary as cultural frameworks” in Southeast Asia, the School’s insistence on a retroactive change to a study purely based in antiquity seems unusual.

Dr. Chiu has revealed that despite these public announcements, in January 2016, staff in the department were made aware of the retroactive restriction of the scholarship programme. Chiu stated that the acceptance of studies of contemporary Southeast Asian art under the programme were claimed to be ‘mistakes’ by department heads, with implications that the donor had later changed his mind on the scope of the programme. Chiu pointed to the lack of transparency in high-level decision making at SOAS, saying she was unaware of which staff members, if any, were consulted on the changes.

Valerie Amos has stated that the previous assignment of Alphawood grants to students of modern Southeast Asian art was an “administrative oversight.” A spokesperson for the Alphawood Foundation also commented that “there was a miscommunication within SOAS of the funder’s intention.” However, Chiu expressed skepticism on the decision-making process, questioning that a ‘miscommunication’ could have been uncovered now, 3 years after the donation was received. Likewise, a current student of modern Southeast Asian art at SOAS (a recipient of the Alphawood bursary in its first year, who then deferred to begin their studies in its second year) stated that the restricted focus on art in antiquity is a “very recent development.”

“It’s not misprint, it’s not a misunderstanding: we were really welcomed [into our degrees],” stated the student, who will remain anonymous. They commented that several of their colleagues in receipt of the Alphawood bursary in its first and second years have studied modern or contemporary Southeast Asian art at SOAS. “I don’t think many applicants know,” the student said, explaining that they know many people who have applied this year for the Alphawood bursary within the scope of modern art.

I was called by Professor Anna Contadini, Head of School of the Arts on Friday 5 February where she initially broached me to think about changing my topic. In a follow up email where I expressed concern about losing the scholarship on Friday 5 Feb she said I would keep it but the topic would have to change.” – prospective PhD student

The stance of SOAS management and the Southeast Asian Art Academic Programme project board, which facilitates the Alphawood bursaries at SOAS, towards the current, past and future scopes of the Alphawood bursaries is confused by the fact that until this week the university was advertising the bursaries as applicable to the MA Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa, as well as PhD and other MA studies which could feasibly include the study of modern Southeast Asian art.

The SOAS Spirit can confirm that as of the 22nd February, the SOAS website was still advertising the Alphawood scholarships as applicable to the above MA course. However, by the night of the 23rd of February, the official page on the scholarships had been taken down, and as of the time of printing, remains offline. However, an official flyer which can be found on the SOAS website and around SOAS, also still details the MA course as applicable to the Alphawood scholarships.

Though staff in the department are aware of the retroactive changes, Chiu described that no academics are willing to speak out against this open secret. “Morale is quite poor [in the department] because of course cuts,” she said, noting that academics are more in fear for their jobs than ever. Chiu stated that she feels she has little to lose by speaking out, as she is an unpaid research associate at SOAS.

The Alphawood Foundation is headed by American broadcasting mogul Fred Eychaner, who undertook a Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art at SOAS in 2009. Eychaner said at the time of donation that “we intend our gift to have its greatest effect in Southeast Asia – and over time, SOAS graduates from the programmes we create today will take their scholarship and talents to the museums, universities, galleries and other institutions of that region. This is how our gift will be transformative.”

Eychaner’s comments are ironic in light of Chiu’s revelations that the department shows ‘no care for students’ by restricting their studies. It is indeed questionable that the Alphawood scholarships can have their “greatest effect in Southeast Asia” if the scope of Southeast Asian students studies are retroactively restricted to areas outside their specialisms.

'The Horse with Two Heads,' Panya Vijinthanasarn
‘The Horse with Two Heads,’ Panya Vijinthanasarn

The SOAS Spirit has spoken on anonymous terms with two prospective students from Southeast Asia, both of whom were accepted as Alphawood scholars in 2015 but decided to defer their studies until September 2016 due to work commitments.

One of them, a PhD student who had been accepted to undertake research in contemporary Southeast Asian art, received a call from the Head of the School of Arts, Anna Contadini on the 5th February. The student, who had never been in contact with Contadini, a senior figure at SOAS, was surprised and unprepared for the call where she was asked to change the topic of her research to Southeast Asian art in antiquity.

The other, an MA student who had been accepted to undertake an MA Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa in 2015, received a call from a SOAS staff member in January informing them that they should also change to study art in antiquity. Both students expressed concern and surprise about the calls they received, with the MA student commenting that they “didn’t think that [they] could study [art in antiquity] at a scholarly level.”

Similarly, the PhD student stated that they were “unsure… if [they were] adequately equipped to undertake this project,” given that PhD students in the UK are expected to complete their degrees within 3-4 years and such a task requires years of relevant research and preparation (including language studies), which the student had only undertaken in regard to modern art practices. The PhD student expressed distress over the precarious situation they were put in by SOAS management, especially as attending SOAS has been “a lifelong dream.”

On the 18th of February, Chiu published an open letter to Valerie Amos and the head of the Alphawood Foundation questioning the decisions made on the future of these two students’ academic careers. The next day, the two students were offered scholarships of identical value to the Alphawood bursaries, allowing them to remain within their initial plans of study.

This sudden change of approach towards the students in question and the provision of two hefty scholarships by the administration within a day of complaint begs an investigation into the procurement of funding and how the budget is allocated.

While management predicts a £6.5 million shortfall in budget, it still has the money to allocate to wronged students whose voices have been heard through public complaint. Before Chiu’s public complaint, neither student had received apology or further explanation from the department on their expected change of research topic. After Chiu’s complaint, however, both students have been awarded funds equaling the generous Alphawood scholarships.

Basically there’s no ethics, no honour and no care for the students in that decision” – Dr. Angela Chiu

Chiu commented that the publicity of SOAS’ clear unethical handling of the scholarships “has already prompted questions in the UK and internationally about the competence of SOAS’ management of the donation and whether the school has actual thought through the restriction’s long-term effects on the field of Southeast Asian art.”

Both Chiu, the prospective PhD student and the current MA student at SOAS expressed concerns that restricting the study of Southeast Asian art to art in antiquity is a turn towards the colonial, with Chiu stating that it could have a “distorting and regressive effect,” pulling the field back to “a colonialist paradigm of Southeast Asian societies as civilisations whose glories are long gone.”

In a time when the school is becoming increasingly commercialised, predicting a budget shortfall and thus in a deep concern over its public reputation, such a mishandling of its largest ever private donation looks precarious for an already heavily criticised management.

What we have here is this closed, cosy little system where decisions are being made and there’s no way for people internally to fix these ethical lapses and have much input where they don’t agree with the decision” – Dr. Angela Chiu

While a spokesperson for the school stated that current Alphawood scholars “will continue to be funded as they are, regardless of their area of study,” the retroactive decisions made by management in regards to the scholarships put the careers of many prospective applicants in danger. SOAS, Chiu says, has for decades been “a center for expertise in Southeast Asia.”

To deprive prospective students of the very experience that attracts them to SOAS because of the a supposed “miscommunication” seems suspect. “If money is going to be the only driving factor, how can we possibly sustain active intellectual communities?,” Chiu commented, illuminating the key fact in this case – that the desire of the donor, or management, must overpower that of the student. Unless, that is, someone like Chiu is willing to speak out against decisions made in secret.

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