Adam Habib to ‘step aside’ as SOAS director during racism probe

Leader only started in January but provoked fury by using N-word in call with students

March 18, 2021
Adam Habib, director of SOAS University of London
Source: University of the Witwatersrand

Adam Habib is to step aside as director of SOAS University of London while an investigation into allegations of anti-black racism at the institution is conducted.

Professor Habib, who started in the role only in January, provoked fury by using the N-word in a video call with students, with a petition calling for his dismissal or resignation being launched.

Earlier this week, SOAS said that it was committed to taking action on students’ complaints that SOAS lecturers had in the past used the slur without reproach, with “Adam Habib as our director”. The institution announced that Judy Clements, a former chief executive of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, would lead a review of the issue.

But in a statement issued on 18 March, Marie Staunton, chair of SOAS’ board of trustees, said she had “agreed with director Adam Habib that he will step aside while this investigation takes place, so as not to compromise the investigation”.

“We are affirming that all the actions set out in the board statement on Tuesday continue to be taken forward. We will continue to find ways to facilitate the mediated conversations and engagement – including with Adam – that centre the black community and the SOAS community broadly, in ways that also do not compromise the process of the investigation,” Ms Staunton said.

“Adam will step aside as of today, ahead of the commencement of the investigation and until the conclusion of the process.”

Claire Ozanne, SOAS’ deputy director and provost, will serve as interim director in the meantime.

In the call, Professor Habib was told by a black student that he could not use the N-word because he was not a black man and did “not face the trauma and the oppression of black bodies, what we go through 24/7 for the last 500 years”.

Professor Habib, former vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, explained that the word was used in his native South Africa, where “when someone uses it, the context matters”. He subsequently issued an apology but emphasised that he had mentioned the word while explaining that action would be taken against its use, and had not used it in a pejorative way.

SOAS’ board previously said that Ms Clements’ investigation would examine “unexplored and unactioned complaints about anti-black conduct across the school and how those affect students’ learning outcomes and staff work environment”, plus “issues that students raised in the Thursday 11 March all-student meeting and their concerns about how those were discussed in that meeting”.

Before the most recent announcement, Professor Habib had issued a statement welcoming the investigation.

“I am mortified that I made this mistake last week and apologise for this. What I was trying to convey was that I take racism seriously, if there are any cases of racism at SOAS I want to be made aware of them, and that I am committed to taking action,” Professor Habib said in the earlier statement.

“I have fought racism my whole life, battling apartheid in South Africa, but this has shown me that I still have more to learn and more work to do. Having spent my career and my activism concentrating on equality, poverty and social justice, I moved to the UK to join SOAS a few months ago because I want to be part of positive change here.

“I will focus my time listening to black colleagues and students, to help to educate myself, to keep on learning, and as I do so I am open to my views changing.”

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