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SOAS’s Board of Trustees: Censoring Students & Silencing Concerns

By Sam Landis, BA Social Anthropology and International Relations 

On Thursday, February 23rd, a group of SOAS students were prohibited from delivering two letters to the Board of Trustees during one of their institutional meetings held in Senate House Library. These letters were written by two student groups on campus concerned with increasing levels of Islamophobia and securitisation at SOAS. As per procedure, the Students’ Union submitted the letters to be added to the meeting’s agenda ten days prior, but they were left off.

“Students trying to deliver the letters were confronted by 10 to 15 security guards stationed both inside and outside Senate House Library, who barred students from entering the meeting room.”

Students trying to deliver the letters were confronted by 10 to 15 security guards stationed both inside and outside Senate House Library, who barred students from entering the meeting room. Upon entry, security threatened to call the police on students. This comes weeks after an extremely violent arrest occurred outside of SOAS, where eight officers forcefully detained a SOAS student in the main courtyard. After being denied entry to the meeting room, students read a brief statement aloud, part of which is quoted below:

‘The removal of the SU update is no surprise to a student body that has been actively resisting Habib’s directorship and the Board of Trustees for its years of silencing and attempted dismantling of any form of mobilisation and union work on campus…This is yet another show of our University’s management style, which prioritises officially and officiously the removal of any form of dissent and free speech.’

Afterwards, students passed the letters to the security guards and stayed for ten minutes further in an attempt to ensure they were delivered to the meeting room, but it remained unclear if they were. They then left the building.

The first letter, written by the Students’ Initiative Against Racism and Islamophobia at SOAS, details a number of allegations of Islamophobia which have occurred on the SOAS campus over the last few years. These include inappropriate comments regarding Islam and Muslim identity made by lecturers during class; numerous occurrences of discrimination involving verbal, written, and physical harassment; and an unwarranted removal of a student from the female prayer area by security staff, among many more. Despite countless attempts to resolve these issues through formal complaint channels, little has been done to ameliorate the problem and provide the substantive action that has been called for. Highlighting a perceived hypocrisy, the letter notes the following: ‘This is unacceptable, particularly in a university that advertises itself on its diversity and teaches Black and Global South Feminist thoughts.’ It concludes with a set of demands including the creation of an independent external panel of enquiry designed to adequately investigate the complaints of racism and Islamophobia at SOAS. 

The second letter, written by a group of students angered by the heightened security presence at SOAS, brings attention to the harmful consequences of a campus which prioritises securitisation and surveillance over decolonisation and liberation. The letter cites various instances of intimidation and harassment from guards (including one allegation of a student being told they would be ‘broken in half’); management’s decision to hyper-securitise picket lines and student rallies; the difficulty of accessing campus spaces and the frustrations of constantly having to present ID cards; and security’s forbidding of students to hand out flyers and literature at the start of term. The letter states: ‘Teaching and learning lose their value when taken place in a heavily securitised space which aims to restrict expression and undermine the worth of students.’

The inability to present student concerns at the Board of Trustees is regarded by some as part of a trend in limiting the democratic capacities of the Students’ Union. In addition to being prohibited from delivering important updates to the trustees, elected sabbatical officers have alleged that their ability to send all-student emails has been revoked, with further restrictions being imposed by managerial figures in the SU. While official SOAS channels frequently send out emails proclaiming the value of students’ voices, many argue that things seem to be operating differently on the ground. 

The full letters have been published on the SOAS Solidarity Instagram. 

Photo Caption: #FIREHABIB, from December 2021 UCU Strikes (Credit: Sam Landis).

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