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SOAS Director to step down

Tom King, BA Politics

Director of SOAS, Professor Paul Webley has announced he plans to step down before the end of the year due to ill health.

Webley, who was awarded a CBE for services to higher education in the recent New Year’s Honours, has been receiving treatment for cancer for a number of months.  The date of his departure is yet to be decided, but Webley has said it will be “at some point during 2015.”

In a letter sent to all SOAS staff on Wednesday, Professor Webley said “The increasing fragility of my health together with uncertainties about my health in the future have affected my ability to perform as Director in the way that I would like. In the best interests of the School and my family therefore, I have taken the decision to step down from my role as SOAS Director.”

Webley has been the School’s Director since 2006; having previously spent 26 years at the University of Exeter, where he rose to the position of Head of the School of Psychology and, finally, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

His time at SOAS has not been without controversy. In 2009, his office was occupied over the deportation of a number of cleaners by immigration officials, and the situation of the cleaners has been an on-going point of contention between the campus trade and students’ unions and Professor Webley.

Speaking to The Spirit last year, Webley said when he arrived at SOAS his main task had been to give the School a sense of purpose. “SOAS didn’t seem to know what it was doing. I was really surprised. SOAS is unusual. Its a very unique institution; small and specialist. It must know what its doing. But it didn’t.” He also said that since he took over the directorship “the transformation to what is essentially a marketised higher education system is really quite stark.”

“We’re in a system now which is very volatile and highly competitive,” he told The Spirit, with a risk that other universities are trying to move into SOAS’ niche. “For years, what we did, we did distinctly and no-one else did, but what you’ve seen in recent years is other universities both within and outside London introducing Chinese degrees, setting up India institutes like King’s and LSE setting up a Middle East institute.”

When he arrived at SOAS, the School made regular annual losses, a situation which he was able to reverse in his first year in the role, and since then SOAS has been on a healthier financial footing.

He went on to say in his message to staff members yesterday, “SOAS is a fantastic institution. It is a privilege to be Director and to work alongside so many talented and inspiring colleagues and students. I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity to continue to work for the School during 2015 and, hopefully, beyond and into our Centenary.”

“The Senate House North Block project is one of the achievements of which I am most proud as Director and I fully intend to be celebrating with you at the official opening party in 2016!”

The School is now beginning the process of recruiting his successor.

Chair of the School’s Governing Body, Dr Tim Miller, commenting on the announcement said, “Paul has given SOAS more than eight years of exceptional and inspiring leadership. I have been amazed, but not at all surprised, at his ability to discharge his role as Director so effectively and with such energy and professionalism since he first learned of the seriousness of his illness.

“With Paul’s participation, we have started the recruitment process for his successor. He will be an extraordinarily hard act to follow and we will be conducting an international search to find an exceptional candidate who can build on Paul’s achievements and take SOAS forward into our second century.”


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