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Director to leave SOAS for Oxford with bittersweet legacy

Valerie Amos
Will Durrant, BA History

SOAS Director Valerie Amos will step down next summer to take the top spot at University College Oxford. Back in London, the search for SOAS’ next Director has already begun.

Baroness Valerie Amos will leave SOAS at the end of this academic year after nearly five years at the School. In her new role at University College Oxford (Univ), she will become Oxford’s first ever black College Head. Amos began her role at SOAS in September 2015, becoming the first black woman to lead a university in the United Kingdom.

Despite the significance of her joining SOAS, the Baroness’ directorship has come under scrutiny by students and union staff on several occasions.

Just months after her appointment, the then-Students’ Union co-president Hannah Slydel told The SOAS Spirit that the School’s ‘Refugees Welcome’ campaign amounted to ‘empty words and an opportunity for good PR.’ This is because, in 2004, Amos voted against a House of Lords motion to ‘support the welfare of child detainees’ in the wake of several high-profile reports of mistreatment of refugee families by the Blair government.

In a 2016 Guardian interview, Amos was praised for being a ‘doer’ rather than a publicist. But the paper noted that whilst Amos was sceptical of the controversial Prevent anti-extremism programme, she was not ready to voice her criticism of the scheme.

In the same interview, Amos refused to endorse nor condemn the famous Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford. Amos’ deflection of the campaign was seen by some students in London as her stepping back from a debate not just about a statue, but about ‘race, … gender and how people are represented in academia.’ Amos once led this debate, making the case in 1984 that white civil rights movements have historically thrived on the stereotyping and degradation of black communities and workforces.

Only last year, Amos led a School-wide staffing reform under the ‘One Professional Services’ (OPS) banner for which she faced further backlash. Unions at the School threatened strike action over compulsory redundancies for non-academic staff across SOAS. After planning to cut a quarter of the School’s library staff, Amos was criticised again by unions for threatening the library’s near-unique National Research status in the UK.

Last year, the Spirit revealed that Amos presided over an unprecedented £7.1 million gap in the School’s budget, and that at previous spending levels SOAS had only eighteen months to survive.

But despite the protests which Amos has faced over her tenure in Bloomsbury, many are keen to highlight that her legacy at SOAS could be a positive one.

The Baroness made waves in the world of British academia, becoming the first black woman to lead a UK university. As the School’s director, Amos took the conversation around decolonising higher education to a national level, to the press and the government. The starting point to confronting European colonial pasts, she recommended, is to make universities less hostile to black academics, who are grossly underrepresented in academia; around 1% of UK professors are black.

And whilst it took several years of campaigning from workers’ rights groups across SOAS, Amos finally brought staff in-house in August 2018. There have been some concerning blips in the meantime, but the bulk of the work was completed under Amos’ directorship.

The Paul Webley Wing in Senate House was also opened under Amos in 2016.

On her departure from SOAS, the Baroness said: ‘I am proud to be Director of SOAS, a university which provides a distinctive academic environment for staff and students. Global is in our DNA and SOAS occupies a special space in the world of higher education. We challenge, we question and we strive to remain true to our values. In the year ahead, I and the senior team will continue to focus on implementing the reforms which will help SOAS continue to thrive.’

SOAS’ Chair of Trustees, Marie Staunton told students and staff that Amos would be greatly missed, whilst Professor Peter Jezzard, Vice-Master at Univ, said: ‘The Governing Body is excited that Baroness Amos agreed to accept our invitation to take on the role [of Master] from next summer, and we very much look forward to welcoming her to the College and to working with her in the future. She brings a wealth and diversity of experience to the role, including a deep knowledge of the higher education sector, and will help us continue Univ’s outstanding reputation for excellence, access and innovation in Oxford.’

Crisis SOAS, a student activist collective, were less complementary. ‘Valerie’s five-year tenure has been a disaster,’ they said as part of a written statement criticising staffing uncertainties, cuts to courses, and outsourcing. They did, however, acknowledge that ‘this was not all Valerie’s fault,’ praising several important union ‘victories’ over the past five years.

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