Carolynn Look, BA Chinese and Development Studies
SOAS’ Director Paul Webley was awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) on Tuesday, December 30th, for his services to Higher Education. The award was officially mentioned on the 2015 New Year’s Honours list.
Orders of the British Empire are awarded twice-yearly for prominent national or regional roles and to those making distinguished or notable contributions in their specific areas of activity. The award therefore acknowledges Professor Webley’s leadership role both at SOAS and in many important organisations in higher education, as well as his commitment to the specialised research found at SOAS and his contributions to his own field of Economic Psychology.
Since his appointment as Director and Principal of SOAS in 2006, SOAS has more than doubled its student body and has experienced greater financial stability and therefore the ability to fund more resources and facilities. Currently, SOAS is working towards unifying its campus through the acquisition of the North Block of Senate House, which will open in 2016.
Improvements in teaching quality under his leadership also led to SOAS being granted the right by the Privy Council in 2011 to award degrees under its own name.
However, Professor Webley has also faced several challenges and criticisms as director, most recently in the form of staff marking boycotts over national pension cuts, and the school’s continued failure to bring cleaners in-house, triggering protests among both students and staff.
Students also complain about the underrepresentation of black academia, the school’s bureaucratic inefficiency, and the general mismatch between the administration’s and the students’ values, with the CBE being yet another ground upon which students and SOAS leadership might disagree.
British honours are one of several traditions remaining since the days of the British Empire, and the Order frequently faces criticism or even rejection of nominations due to the implications of its naming. In 2003, British Jamaican poet Benjamin Zephaniah publicly turned down an OBE because he claimed it reminded him of “thousands of years of brutality”.
Several other past nominees are known to have rejected the award due to its clashing with their values, among them John Lennon and Rabindranath Tagore.
Paul Webley, however, accepted the award, stating on the school’s website: “This is a great honour. I have been privileged to work in higher education throughout my career, largely in the UK but also collaborating with many colleagues and institutions around the world. To me, research and teaching are the foundation of society and I cannot imagine a more fulfilling profession. Through my work at SOAS especially I am glad to have been able to support powerful scholarship and to ensure that specialist knowledge and understanding remains accessible to generations of students around the world.”