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‘Unethical Conduct’ in Alphawood Programme Continues

Mel Plant, BA Arabic and Turkish

Following allegations of unethical conduct made in February, a Freedom of Information request submitted by the SOAS Students’ Union and Dr. Angela Chiu has revealed that the allocation of Alphawood Foundation funds has continued in a secretive manner, jeopardising the academic careers of several students.

In February, The SOAS Spirit was approached by Dr. Angela Chiu, a research associate and member of SOAS’ South East Asian Studies centre, with allegations that senior SOAS management figures had retroactively and secretly altered criteria for the allotment of Alphawood Foundation funds, donated to SOAS in 2013.

Though the original £20 million donation, £15 million of which was designated for the study of South East Asian art (the other £5 million being allocated to the development of Senate House North Block), was not specified to be used for the study of ancient Southeast Asian art, in early 2016 two students complained that management figures had requested that they retroactively change their areas of study from modern and contemporary to ancient Southeast Asian art.

The two students, who had already been promised Alphawood grants for their respective MA and PhD studies into modern Southeast Asian art, were forced to consider a major change of studies, for which they deemed themselves unprepared or face their funding being revoked. After an open letter to Director Valerie Amos and Alphawood Executive Director James McDonough by Chiu, the two students were promised grants of an equivalent amount in order to continue to pursue their studies in contemporary art.

However, a Freedom of Information request by the SOAS Students’ Union and Dr. Angela Chiu has lead to the publishing of redacted correspondence by several members of the Alphawood project board, sent prior to The SOAS Spirit’s original investigation and Chiu’s first open letter, which reveal that students applying for the Alphawood grant this academic year have faced rejection because of their focus on modern or contemporary art.

Advertisements this academic year for the Alphawood scholarships did not specify that the grant would apply only to studies in ancient or pre-modern art, in fact detailing that the grant could fund applicants’ studies in an MA Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa. The latest round of applications for the grant closed on 18 December 2015, with all publicly available information pointing to the Alphawood scholarships as a facilitator of studies of Southeast Asian art from the ancient to the contemporary.

Alphawood Scholarships Advertisement 2015
Alphawood Scholarships Advertisement 2015 (Click to Enlarge)

In fact, the first public notice by SOAS of the retroactive decision to change the remit of the Alphawood funds was posted on 15 April 2016, when the application process for the Alphawood Scholarships 2016/17 was announced, specifying the purpose of the grant to further ‘the understanding and preservation of ancient to pre-modern Buddhist and Hindu art in Southeast Asia.’

The Southeast Asian Art Academic Programme Project Board, in charge of awarding Alphawood grants, convened on 3 February 2016 in order to decide the final allocation of Alphawood funds for the next academic year. The Freedom of Information request has shown that, out of 139 applicants (64 of whom were found eligible), 23 scholarships were awarded.

The vast majority of applicants sought funding for MA degrees and post-graduate certificates and diplomas. Out of 51 MA applications, 10 were geared towards studying modern or contemporary art. Of 4 PhD application submitted, all were also focused on modern or contemporary art, and despite that these 4 applications were ‘endorsed’ by the application process, and all were rejected. Likewise, the 10 MA candidates focusing on modern art had their applications designated by one project board member, whose name has been redacted, as ‘low’ because they did not ‘fit the Alphawood restriction to classical Hindu-Buddhist art.’

The failure to make retroactive changes to the Alphawood grant remit has not only disadvantaged students with an explicit desire to study contemporary art at SOAS, but those who also have expressed a past interest in modern or contemporary art. In an open letter to Director Amos, published on 17 May 2016, the Students’ Union and Chiu noted that all 17 candidates who had an ‘interest or past experience in contemporary art,’ who included 3 additional MA candidates whose applications did not specify contemporary art, were rejected. All 3 applicants to the MA in Contemporary Art of Asia and Africa, publically  advertised as part of the Alphawood remit until February, were rejected.

The emails released under the Freedom of Information request also reveal direct statements made by Professor Gurharpal Singh, chair of the Alphawood Project Board, who reiterated statements privately made in the department in January, in an email sent on 1 February 2016, that ‘no scholarships are to be awarded in Contemporary Art (MA or PhD).’

Singh also commented that ‘given the clarity of Alphawood’s explanation in supporting only Hindu and Buddhist art, care should also be not [to] select candidates outside of the art programmes (i.e. Southeast Asia). Despite the MA in Southeast Asian Studies being amongst the courses advertised as part of the Alphawood programme, out of 4 applicants to the course included in the top 30 of the selection process, 2 were asked by the Board to change their course to the MA in History of Art and Archeology in order to fit the new Alphawood remit.

The inclusion of the course in advertising materials and the failure to make a public announcement to the contrary is in stark contrast to Singh’s statement of the ‘clarity of Alphawood’s explanation’ which should rule out the selection of applicants to the MA in Southeast Asian Studies.

The 2 accepted applicants were given only one option, to change their degree course, according to emails from 7 and 12 February 2016. The situation of these students is enlightened when considering that the same change of course was requested of 2 students who had already been accepted to the Alphawood programme in 2015. However, the situation of those students was publically protested in Chiu’s letter of 18 February 2016 and the next day, they were awarded equivalent scholarships and allowed to continue their studies in contemporary art.

The above information included in the Freedom of Information request and open letter makes SOAS’ management figures response to Chiu’s original correspondences only more questionable. While management conceded scholarships to 2 students whose situation had been publically protested on 19 February, other students seeking to study modern or contemporary Southeast Asian art had their applications rejected, or were faced with an unexpected change in studies, earlier in the month.

Chiu and Hannah Slydel of the Students’ Union allege that the Alphawood funds have been allocated through ‘unethical activity.’ These decisions were made ‘quietly,’ claims the open letter. Indeed, the decisions made by the Project Board between 3-12 February 2016 did not equal public information on the Alphawood grants at the time. As of the 6 May, the Deed of Gift had not been modified to restrict funding to only ancient or pre-modern art studies. With all information available, it seems that applicants were in the dark about the restrictions made to the Alphawood funding.

In their open letter, Chiu and Slydel have called for clarity in regards to Alphawood funding, as well as further consultation on the limitation of the programme to ‘ancient to premodern art.’ Furthermore, they have proposed that new chairs be appointed to the Project Board and that applications rejected in February be reconsidered.

SOAS’ response to the Freedom of Information request can be found here.

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