Student Group Responds to Lay Trustees’ Statement

1 year ago SOAS Spirit 1
A group of students have sent an open letter to The SOAS Spirit, in order to respond to the statement released by the Lay Trustees of SOAS on 22nd April 2016. 

They wish to remain anonymous, but would like to note their dissatisfaction at the lack of means for them to communicate with the rest of the student body.

“All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts or data are nonexistent, but that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation… for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.”

Edward W. Said

Dear Lay Trustees,

This is a reply to your email sent on 22nd April 2016, from current SOAS students who have collectively witnessed or experienced sexual, racial, structural, and epistemological violence over the past four years. We too love and respect SOAS but feel that our experiences are continually ignored. It is not us, the students, at the heart of this institution but a handful of privileged senior managers who impose decisions on the rest of us. We have become increasingly worried and dissatisfied over the course of past two years with regards to your lack of accountability and blatant disregard for students and staff wishes.

We strongly agree that the school should do everything in its power to ensure the safety of staff and students, and to ensure a safe space for all. Our experience however is that this has never been the case. We have been living and documenting various types of harassment, discrimination, and assault- including but not limited to sexual and racial- that the school has known about but refuses to act on. In the very limited cases when they have acted it has been to safeguard SOAS’ own interest/ ‘reputation’ and not the protection of students and/or staff.

A few examples to illustrate what we live through, as we are sure that senior management control has ensured that neither you, nor the wider community are aware of them:

  • The racist and fascist graffiti in Turkish in at least two locations, one of which has been painted over due to the actions of the Students’ Union, but the other is yet to be removed. When concerned students have repeatedly asked to see the CCTV to investigate who wrote the offensive slogan, the school has continually denied them access. The graffiti translates to calls for the extermination of the Kurdish population and their Turkish allies and supporters. As there are a large number of Kurdish students and Turkish activists on campus who are personally affected by the current climate in Turkey, the authors’ intent to inflict fear and intimidate these students is evident. This is disgraceful as the School selectively use CCTV footage to intimidate and victimise individuals when it suits their purposes- against dissenting staff and students;
  • The continual mishandling of harassment cases has meant that there is no trust in the school to follow through with their own flawed procedures. On at least one occasion the hearing added further trauma to the individual reporting the case due to the way it was mismanaged by the person overseeing it. The school did not deem the case to be ‘important enough’ to involve a senior member of staff even though they were contacted by an external organisation. In the school’s failure to provide adequate support it has been academics who have taken on the additional task of providing mental and emotional support to students (and we thank them);
  • All of this is without even mentioning the daily exploitation of labour at an institution that claims to have ‘ideals’. When the school relies on a tier of teaching staff that are not adequately compensated for their time or effort, and a tier of support staff that are not even seen fit to be a part of SOAS.

As you have studied and worked at SOAS you should remember that one of the first requirements of critical thinking is questioning how and why things are the way they are instead of blindly accepting one-sided narratives. We too feel that the school has been cast in a bad light. The Director’s recent meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, is unacceptable. The contempt with which she treats staff and students who have raised concerns over this matter is indicative as to how senior management view the rest of us. This is not withstanding the school’s refusal to implement the result of last years’ BDS referendum. Again, exploitation can never be window dressed.

Given that you as lay individuals wield such considerable power over the direction and development of the institution, we would welcome dialogue. However as students we cannot ever directly engage in such discussions. Perhaps those who live the day-in-day-out SOAS experiences of teaching, learning and undertaking research need to be centralised in decision-making processes.

We would like to feel some of the optimism that you speak of but there is only despair. With the impending course-cuts and reduction in staff numbers the SOAS curriculum will no longer be offering what the world requires, as you point out. Its graduating students will be less specialised, less qualified, but with more expensive pieces of paper.

If there is any hope and optimism it comes from academics and students organising to offer an alternative education that speaks more to the lived-world experiences of non-hegemonic students and staff.

The SOAS we experience is disproportionately constructed in your image, this is not our SOAS. We have fundamental problems with the world in which we live and do not want to embody, or mirror it in anyway. The fact that you repeatedly fail to recognise that this is a primary motivation for a large number of the student body opting to study here highlights how disconnected you are from us. In such an instance how can you speak or make decisions on our behalf? Of what real use are buildings with a ridiculous yellow logo if the foundations on which they are built upon are hollow?

We wish we could sign our names but the draconian manner in which SOAS is targeting students with the aim to intimidate any dissenting voices does not give us the collective confidence to do so.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

~ Audre Lorde