Adam Habib, the newly appointed director of the School of Oriental and African Studies or SOAS University of London, has been cleared of racism over the use of the n-word during a meeting with students in March, but investigators recommended several corrective steps to be taken in the aftermath of the incident.
The SOAS board of trustees met on May 4 and have accepted in full the recommendations of an independent external investigation into the meeting of March 11 and events since.
While the report was critical of Habib’s response to students at the meeting and in his subsequent tweets, it said that his mistake in vocalizing the n-word in full while trying to say that using the word was offensive, did not, in itself, make him a racist.
In a statement, the board said it has accepted all the recommendations from the investigation and is taking specific action on all of them. The steps to be taken include:
• Putting in place a restorative justice approach for the meeting of March 11 and subsequent events arising;
• Developing, as recommended, a clear policy for the SOAS community on the use of the n-word;
• Continuing to take forward the process of dialogue between the SOAS community of staff, students, and SOAS leadership;
• Providing specific advice and support for the director (Habib) on equality, diversity issues in the higher education sector; and
• Producing, in due course, a statement from the board on lessons learned from this experience and regular reporting to the SOAS community.
With the understanding that all these actions are being put in place, Habib will resume duties as director on May 10. He was previously the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand.
Habib said in a statement that he accepts the findings of the investigation unreservedly and supports their recommendations, including the board’s decisions on how this will be taken forward.
Emphasising his commitment to implementing the proposals under the guidance of the board, Habib again apologized to the SOAS community for his conduct, for the offence and hurt, and for the disruption this has caused.
“I reiterate my commitment to act against all forms of racism, and to work with the SOAS community in identifying and fashioning specific interventions to address the exclusionary experiences of black people and other communities within the institution,” he said.
“There is a lot to do to rebuild from this. There is action to be taken to address racism and anti-blackness. I believe we can and should do this together. I understand why some in our community will take a long time to trust me. I promise I will do all I can to re-earn your trust and respect,” Habib said.
Habib said he reiterates his commitment to act against all forms of racism and to work with the SOAS community in identifying and fashioning specific interventions to address the exclusionary experiences of black people and other communities within the institution.
Marie Staunton, the chair of the SOAS board, said the outcomes are important to both the SOAS community and to SOAS as an institution, and that the investigators have produced a thorough and clear report.
“We acknowledge the pain and distress caused to many in our community – and we thank everyone for their engagement with the independent investigation. We are taking this opportunity to apologize again to all those who have been so affected and distressed by these events.”
Staunton said, as indicated when the probe was announced, fairness, urgency, and transparency were at the forefront of the board’s decision.
Having taken the approach of an independent and external investigation, she said the whole SOAS community – with varying views on this matter – could have confidence in the approach taken in these challenging circumstances.
She added that, while Habib used the word in full while trying to say that it should not be used within the SOAS community, he has since acknowledged that speaking the word in full was a mistake, for which he has apologized.
Furthermore, she said the different representations from the SOAS community made during the course of the investigation, particularly as to the preferred outcome, reinforced the complexity of the situation SOAS had found itself in.
“These representations also included a proposal to explore a restorative justice approach, which was picked up by the investigators in their recommendations, and has prompted the board to think whether there is a better way forward than the adversarial approach that might have been taken in the past, particularly as some of the world’s leading experts on restorative justice are at SOAS,” she said.
Staunton added that, as a leadership group and team, the SOAS board needed to learn important lessons from this and make sure it takes forward the range of action on critical areas around race.
“I personally commit to making sure, as the chair, that we do this for the benefit of all and the board has set up oversight mechanisms, including a twice-yearly report back to the SOAS community on actions taken,” she said.
Staunton said the board wanted to reaffirm that SOAS is committed to anti-racism, to tackling hate and anti-blackness, to bringing people together, and to listening and learning throughout life.
“It is important that we move forward collectively as an institution now in the best interests of everyone in the SOAS community,” she said.
Internationally renowned education expert, Professor Jonathan Jansen, now with Stellenbosch University, told University World News that the SOAS board has made the right decision to reinstate Habib.
But he added that its initial reaction to suspend Habib was a mistake since the word was used in context to express support for anti-racist action, a commitment that Habib has lived and expressed through a lifetime of anti-apartheid activism.
Jansen said it is one thing for the board to reinstate its director; what Habib has to ask is whether this board has his back going forward.
“In other words, is it worth his while staying on in such a compromised environment? There are actually two independent decisions at play – that of the board (which is now known) and that of Professor Habib,” he said.
Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), said he was relieved that this matter has been brought to a close amicably so that attention can be turned to some of the real underlying issues that surfaced through this incident, which are relevant to the global academy.
Vilakazi said the SOAS is an institution of distinction and Wits looks forward to working with the school at multiple levels to move the higher education sector forward.
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