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Interview with new SOAS Director, Adam Habib

By Maliha Shoaib, BA English and World Philosophies

Professor Adam Habib has assumed his position as Director of SOAS as of 4 January. Habib is an academic, researcher, activist and public intellectual with a career spanning 30 years. Prior to joining SOAS, he was Vice-Chancellor and Principle of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Under his leadership Wits was praised for their academic and financial success, though many have criticised his management of the Fees Must Fall protests of 2015, where students protested to stop the increase in university fees. The protests got out of hand and police were called, leading to police brutality and violence against students. We sat down with him to ask him some of your questions about Fees Must Fall controversy and the future of SOAS.

What have you done so far as Director? What does your role entail?

The past two weeks I’ve spent eight or nine hours a day having conversations. I’ve met the staff and have been finding out about SOAS, what their thoughts are, what challenges people think there are, asking questions, and looking at the finances. As of 18 January I’ve introduced a new process to create a strategic plan which is asking big questions about how to ensure SOAS gets out of the crisis. 

SOAS has enormous potential but its capacity is compromised by its administrative and financial challenges, and these are not insurmountable. I’ve got to make many hard decisions and it’s not going to make me popular with everyone. But I do think they are central to ensuring that the student experience is at the centre of what we focus on, that knowledge production is at the heart of what we do and that we are fit for purpose for the world of the 21st Century – and it’s that combination that interests me in what I want to really do.

How do you feel about the documentary ‘Everything Must Fall’ and your portrayal as the neoliberal, money oriented and image conscious management in the film based on the student revolution for free education in South Africa?

I thought ‘Everything Must Fall’ represented the story of two generations of activists grappling with the challenges of our time. You might say the Vice Chancellor is money interested, but if I wasn’t money interested, Wits would be in the same place that SOAS is – in a financial crisis. So I think we need to start understanding that we live in the real world, not in a world that we wish existed, and money is what makes institutions work because you have to pay salaries, you have to buy infrastructure, and if you don’t take that seriously, institutions get into crises. If you are interested in Higher Education, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be committed to social values – but it does mean you mustn’t ignore money, because when you ignore money, you destroy institutions. 

Academics at Wit said that you insulted academic activists by demonising them as the “Pol Pot Brigade” in your Rebels and Rage book. They said it was unfair to inaccurately homogenise and demonise them when they were from many diverse intellectual traditions, many of which are popular at SOAS. How would you respond to this critique? 

Firstly let me start by saying that wasn’t the academics, there was a group of academics – some were students and some were academics – and there were about 30-35 in a staffing establishment of 7000. We must bear in mind after Fees Must Fall I stood for a second term at Wits and the union actually polled all of the staff members on how many would support my second term and more than 75% did, and when it went to the senate more than 85% did. So if you suggest that’s the dominant opinion amongst the academics, how do you explain that so many academics were in support of me being a leader at Wits? 

Second, in terms of the diversity of the ideological expressions you are on about, it was the practice and behaviour that I described that as Pol Pot Brigade. Pol Pot is a deviant expression of the left like fascism was a deviant expression of conservative capitalism. It seems to me that what I was reflecting was that those people wanted to shut down a campus permanently and they were not prepared to acknowledge that students wouldn’t have graduated, and they were prepared to sacrifice the lives of generations of students in a zero sum game without understanding the consequences. 

People get offended that I labelled those individuals. But check how they labelled me! Why is it appropriate for one group of people to malign, to label an individual, and when that individual responds in a book – and I qualified it by saying I refer to them as the Pol Pot – they take offence. Is respect not reciprocated? They undermine a democratic space for ideas and they were responded to firmly and critically in a public book, and if they felt I misrepresented them why didn’t they take me to court? Why didn’t they challenge me? Because everything I said in that book I have evidence for, so in a sense my response to those on the far right and also those on the left who engage in toxic discourse is don’t play victim when you are responded to firmly. If you want respect, engage with respect, because that’s the only way we can build a democratic public space. 

How do you feel about the violence perpetrated on students under your administration at Wits?

Context matters, and this is one of the biggest principles of left wing activism. Violence was perpetrated on all sides. So ask yourself, how do you respond to the family of two security officers at the Cape Peninsula Institution of Technology when student activists locked them up in a building and tried to burn the building down? How do you respond to activists that burned 1.5 billion Rand [£70 million] worth of buildings in universities around the country – how is that justifiable in any context? That’s malevolent action. 

What I did was I asked a democratically elected government to bring their chosen police force to keep safe public facilities. If you try to kill my staff members and my students, I will defend them. Read my argument in Fees Must Fall, and ask the question whether it is legitimate to engage in violence in a democratic society. Some of those middle class kids could get daddy and mummy to pay for them to study overseas. The really poor didn’t have that luxury of choice. For them the only institutions available were those public universities like Wits whose buildings were important for them to get the kind of education that would enable the social mobility that allows them to exist in equality. Today, students are graduating – we are one of the great universities in the world in this continent because of those hard decisions. So don’t make judgments from afar without understanding context and living the reality.

A lot of people are concerned with SOAS’s financial crisis, particularly with the media coverage and everlasting rumours of a UCL takeover and the buildings being sold. What’s your financial plan moving forward – how will you guarantee financial viability for SOAS (particularly after Covid-19)?

Graham Upton, who was the Interim Director for the past 9 months, I’m particularly grateful to. He had to make some really hard decisions in difficult circumstances. And over the past 9 months we had the Transformation and Change process which has already put SOAS in a much firmer financial footing on the basis of those very hard decisions. But this is  a temporary victory – all it did was buy us some time. And if we’re to get out of the mess in a sustainable way, we need to fundamentally reimagine what it means to be SOAS. 

‘If we’re to get out of the mess in a sustainable way, we need to fundamentally reimagine what it means to be SOAS.’

We need to figure out a new strategic agenda and tie that agenda to a new financial plan, and that plan needs to, over the next 3-5 years, be focused firstly on developing a small surplus so we can put some money away for a rainy day, and also make us enough money so we can invest in better facilities, a new IT system, and a new student support experience. Now that strategic plan is what I’ve initiated on 18 January. There are five elements to that strategic plan. The first is what do we want to be as SOAS? I think we need to be some complex mix of the focus on becoming the research intensive university we used to be in the 1990’s, and a numbers driven focus on increasing student numbers. 

The second is what do we want to be in terms of internationalization? Are Africa, Asia, and the Middle East simply areas of study, or do we train people on the big questions of our world but from the perspective of the Global South? The third is can we do joint teaching with institutions in the South so we can bring and share employment? The fourth is finances. The three big questions we have to ask here are about staff-student ratios, whether fractional staff cost us more than full time staff, and how we align our income and expenditures with grants, scholarships and fundraising. 

The final part is what I would refer to as institutional efficiency. I’ve heard many complaints from students that nobody replies to their emails, or that applicants don’t hear back quickly, or that their experience differs in each department. Unanswered concerns are not fair on students – it means we don’t take students seriously, and that’s unacceptable. This past week I launched something called Let Me Know, where you follow the normal channels but if someone repeatedly has not resolved the concerns you have, let me know so I can assist. How we have a better relationship is a two way thing: it’s about management communicating and listening and being responsive, but it’s also about students being equal partners in engaging with courtesy and respect, and taking seriously their education honing in on their student experience. 

What steps are you taking to move towards decolonising? Do you think it’s time to remove the term ‘oriental’ from SOAS? 

I asked the same question at the executive board yesterday – is it time to remove the word oriental from SOAS? I think the acronym has really valuable branding across the world, but I do sometimes feel queasy about the word oriental, and I would love to explore in an open way whether we could keep the name SOAS but rethink what the wording is. On decolonisation, we’ve already begun – it’s at the core of the strategic plan with the international question of whether we see Africa, Asia, and the Middle East as oriental and exotic, or part of a collective community. 

Photo caption: Professor Adam Habib, SOAS’s new Director (Credit: The World University Rankings).

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