During his first few weeks as the new Director of SOAS, Professor Adam Habib spoke to Maliha Shoaib, the editor of the student newspaper SOAS Spirit, about his plans for SOAS and his leadership at University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa including his handling of the Fees Must Fall protests of 2015. All the questions Adam answered had been put forward by SOAS students after a call out by SOAS Spirit.
In the interview conducted over Zoom, Professor Habib discussed the work he has done so far since he took up his role as Director of SOAS on 4 January 2021, including his meetings with staff to find out about SOAS, “what their thoughts are, what challenges people think there are, asking questions, and looking at the finances.”
Professor Habib also explained his key priority of creating a new school-wide strategic plan, with input from across the school to ensure the financial viability and sustainability of SOAS:
“I’ve got to make many hard decisions… [that] are central to ensuring that the student experience is at the centre of what we focus on, that knowledge production is at the heart of what we do and that we are fit for purpose for the world of the 21stcentury – and it’s that combination that interests me in what I want to really do.”
When asked about the Fees Must Fall protests in South Africa in 2015 and his portrayal in the “Everything Must Fall” documentary, Professor Habib commented that the documentary “represented the story of two generations of activists grappling with the challenges of our time.” He went on to explain that as the head of the university the income of the institution is a necessary concern for any leader of an institution stating, “I think we need to start understanding that we live in the real world, not in a world that we wish existed, and money is what makes institutions work because you have to pay salaries, you have to buy infrastructure and if you don’t take that seriously institutions get into crises.”
Professor Habib also openly discussed the debates with members of the Wits community during the Fees Must Fall protests and the urgent decisions he needed to make to protect his staff and students and keep them safe, explaining that he “asked a democratically elected government to bring their chosen police force to keep safe public facilities. If you try to kill my staff members and my students I will defend them.”
Professor Habib further explained the need for democratic debate and mutual respect between all parties and explained that his message to those on the far right and left who engage in toxic discourse is “don’t play victim when you are responded to firmly. If you want respect, engage with respect, because that’s the only way we can build a democratic public space.”
When Maliha asked Professor Habib about his plans to put SOAS on sustainable financial footing and the School’s decolonising agenda he discussed the key elements of the development of a new strategic plan for the School and also explained that SOAS’s work on decolonisation has already begun with decolonisation being “at the core of the strategic plan with the international question of whether we see Africa, Asia and the Middle East as oriental and exotic or part of a collective community.” Read the full interview with Professor Adam Habib online version of SOAS Spirit.