Questions raised about SOAS’ alleged double standards

The University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) has remained silent on whether the action taken against its director and former vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, Adam Habib, is a case of double standards.

Habib has stepped aside pending an investigation into his use of an ‘n-word’ during a student meeting last month.

In a statement, SOAS said it could not comment until completion of the probe.

SOAS stood firm two years ago on academic freedom of speech when students and staff called for the dismissal of law lecturer Gunnar Beck who contested elections for a far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), in the 2019 European Parliament elections.

Members of the law faculty at SOAS University of London said according to reports at the time that they were “appalled” that their colleague Gunnar Beck had chosen to run for the party.

Students and staff called for his dismissal and asked the university to explain its role “in facilitating his far-right politics”.

No action taken

But there was no action taken by the SOAS leadership against Beck, who was elected to the European Parliament in 2019. Currently on leave, Beck teaches an undergraduate course, Introduction to EU Law, and the postgraduate course, EU Law in Global Context.

During the election, controversy broke out over his alleged use of the title ‘professor’ on the ballot, when he was, in fact, a reader in law at the university.

Questions have been raised about SOAS’s response to Beck’s action compared with their treatment of Habib and how an individual could be a member of a political organisation which is perceived to be extreme, yet technically remain an employee of SOAS.

A staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the apparent double standards at SOAS were in relation to the extreme action against Habib compared to the inaction against Beck, despite the loud protests by staff and students at the time.

“It amounts to a selective application of human resources policy,” said the academic.

SOAS statement

Responding to questions from University World News, SOAS said in a statement that, since an external investigation is currently taking place, it is unable to comment on specific details until the investigation has been completed.

“SOAS is committed to anti-racism, to tackling hate and to bringing people together as communicated in a statement from our board on 16 March 2021,” the statement said.

“Through a combination of dialogue and concrete actions, we are taking action to create a stronger, fairer and more compassionate SOAS for everyone,” it continued.

SOAS added that the statement on Beck, which it labelled an unrelated matter, is available on the SOAS website.

That statement said they had found the policies of the AfD on a range of matters to be abhorrent and conflicting with the fundamental values SOAS holds as an institution.

“We recognise the anxiety caused to staff and students as a result of this situation. However, as an academic institution, we are committed to the rights of academic freedom of speech within the law, despite the painful choices to which it gives rise. We encourage members of our community to tackle these issues through robust debate.”

The views of individual members of staff employed at SOAS should not be taken to represent the views of SOAS as an institution or SOAS as a community, the institution said.

Following Habib’s use of the n-word in a webinar, a subsequent vote of no confidence in his leadership, and students’ outrage, Habib stepped aside on 18 March after an external investigation into the incident on 11 March started.

After a series of tweets in which he explained his position, Habib, in a subsequent statement after the incident, apologised for any hurt and distress caused.