Tributes have been paid to Paul Webley, the former director of Soas, University of London, who has died aged 62 after battling cancer.
Professor Webley, who led the Bloomsbury institution between 2006 and 2015, was described as an “inspired leader” and an “unstinting champion of specialised research and of freedom of speech” by Baroness Valerie Amos, who took over as Soas director last year.
“As we approach our centenary in 2016-17, Soas can be proud to have had Paul as its champion and leader for the last decade,” said Baroness Amos, who said that he left a “great legacy” at the institution, whose student numbers more than doubled from 2,000 to 5,000 during his term of office.
He was also instrumental in securing a £20 million gift to Soas from the Chicago-based charity the Alphawood Foundation in 2013, which will support the study of south-east Asian art and the renovation of the North Block of Senate House, the centrepiece of Soas's revamp of its estates.
“Paul’s warmth, generosity and loyalty was felt by all,” said Baroness Amos, adding that “the whole Soas community of staff and students, alumni and friends and supporters are greatly saddened by his loss”.
An economic psychologist by training, Professor Webley took his doctorate at the London School of Economics and spent 26 years at the University of Exeter, where he rose to become deputy vice-chancellor.
“Paul was not just a valued colleague, but was quite simply one of the nicest and most widely respected people I have ever met,” said Sir Steve Smith, Exeter’s vice-chancellor, who said “he will be truly sorely missed by everyone who worked with him”.
“He understood the need for change at Exeter and led the process from the mid-1990s in modernising the institution,” said Sir Steve, who described Professor Webley’s legacy at Exeter as “enormous”.
He was elected to the Academy of Social Sciences in 2010 in recognition of his work on economic psychology where he had contributed to more than 140 academic publications, and was made a CBE in the 2015 New Year’s Honours’ list.
Tim Miller, a former chair of the board of trustees at Soas, praised Professor Webley’s “untiring commitment to the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East” which he believed was “an inspiration and a beacon to the internationalist spirit in this country”.
“His passionate optimism, tempered by a psychologist’s dispassionate understanding of behaviour and motivation, has enabled him to have a significant impact on both higher education and Britain’s engagement with the world beyond Europe,” he said.
A memorial service will be held for Professor Webley, who died on 2 March, at a later date and books of condolence have been made available in the reception areas of Soas’ College Buildings and the Brunei Gallery.