Hakim Adi, is the first UK professor of history of African descent, respected as a champion of black history, has been made redundant from his post at Chichester University, in the most alarming and questionable of circumstances.
The move, which sparked anger from Adi’s contemporaries, past and present students, and the wider global academic community, may yet lead to a legal battle as a result of the manner in which both he and his students have been treated.
The fallout has also renewed debate about the increasing marketisation of education, the ease with which African history has been discarded like so many other arts and humanities subjects, and the many contradictory explanations and justifications offered by the university.
Firstly, Adi’s profile and resume alone might have been enough for a more savvy institution to move mountains to retain one of their stars. Highly respected for his academic contributions, he is revered and celebrated as an expert in his field. Further, his commitment to promoting African history is what led to the creation of a hugely popular course at the University of Chichester, following the History Matters conference in 2015.
Contradictory commitments to diversity
The masters by research (MRes) course in the history of Africa and the African diaspora was launched in 2017, and successfully recruited students from all over the world, training them as historians. In addition, the course produced several candidates who went on to pursue PHDs.
Put simply, the role of Professor Adi, and the students he taught, largely of African and Caribbean descent, is vital; there’s an acute lack of black historians in the UK, which he sought to directly tackle.
The years of great work by Adi and his students however, has been thrown under the bus in a matter of weeks, following Chichester’s shock decision to scrap the Mres course, and with it, Professor Adi’s post. Furthermore, the manner in which this was done has raised alarm bells as Chichester’s version of events just doesn’t square.
The university claims more money was spent on the course, £700k to be precise, since its 2017 launch, than was generated in tuition fees. However, the university is yet to break down precisely how the money was spent, leaving a big question mark as to why the £700k figure was floated in the media in the first place.
Chichester also says that the Mres course did not attract enough students. But this could be due to the fact that the university never marketed or promoted the course sufficiently, which was not the responsibility of Professor Adi. Which has begs the question: Why is Adi being punished for failing to meet recruitment targets which were never his to meet?
In addition, other courses said to continue to run at Chichester apparently have similar numbers of students.
Probably worst of all, is the claim that the course produced only 1 graduate in 3 years. There have been at least 9 according to both students and Adi.
Students also said they were kept in the dark about the decision that has seriously disrupted their studies, and which has led to a crowdfunding for a potential legal challenge to the university. Whilst Chichester informed them that a new supervisor will be found, this doesn’t make up for the fact that many signed up to the course because of the unique expertise and supervision that Adi specifically offered.
By abandoning Adi, Chichester has not only lost a great academic asset, but it has also sent a clear message about how little they prioritise diversity and black representation in a sector where only 1% of professors are black. Not to mention, it is deeply contradictory to their so-called commitment to inclusion, equality and diversity.
This has hugely politicised Adi’s redundancy, which is seen as a severing of progress when it comes to black representation in UK higher education. As the University and Colleges Union (UCU) described it, this is an ‘attack on black academia.’
A petition calling for the course to be saved has already attracted tens of thousands of signatures. One of the signatories, the poet professor and musician Benjamin Zephaniah, took to social media to express his opposition:
‘I just can't believe they could do this to our brother.
I just can't believe they could do this to our history.’
There has been an avalanche of solidarity which has sent a sharp wake-up call to the institution responsible.
Bolstering the anti-woke agenda
The attack on Adi should also be considered within the wider UK political backdrop.
We live in a country which entertains a great nostalgia for empire, manifested in the Brexit vote – the UK’s make Britain Great (white) Again moment. Winston Churchill, an open white supremacist as evidenced in his own writings, is revered as the greatest ever Briton.
Not to mention, the UK is far from making amends, apologising for, or paying reparations for its role in the transatlantic slave trade. This is despite perversely claiming credit for ending it.
Within this quagmire of national delusion is the sad and sobering reality that with the increasing marketization of education, some histories are simply viewed as more important than others, especially to a political class intent on pushing the culture war.
It’s no coincidence that Chichester decided to drop Adi’s course with little more than an afterthought for both the teacher and his students, when we consider the context of 13 years of the Conservative government’s austerity, cuts to education and the rising of tuition fees that are pricing the poorest out of institutions and courses.
Politically, we have a reactionary right-wing administration intent on attacking anything deemed an inch left of centre, including political movements that are fighting for and demanding a more equal society. Black Lives Matter, climate justice activists, and anything progressive have been attacked as part of the so-called “woke” agenda, sadistically under the guise of free speech.
In reality, this perpetual whining about wokeness and supposed cancel culture should be called out for what it really is; white fragility and privilege terrified at the sight of progressive black power.
Professor Adi’s work is the antithesis to this current toxic climate, especially when we consider numerous reports that have long highlighted the structural racism experienced by students and staff in UK universities. Campaigns to decolonise the curriculum and higher education institutions have long been raising the alarm on these issues.
All things considered, the actions of Chichester University have therefore placed it on the wrong side of history. The recent news that professor Adi’s book African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History (2022), has been shortlisted for the prestigious Wolfson Prize, only further highlights this.
Chichester could have rolled up their sleeves and found a way to keep Adi and his much needed course, but to many – considering the weakness in the justifications given – this was never really about the money. The attack seems ideological. It also follows the natural logic of austerity, the defunding of arts, and humanities, and all of the mechanisms which might provide a counterweight to the increasing right-wing nationalism which has found a comfortable home in Britain, and willing politicians eager to stoke its flames.
Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others.
Follow him on Twitter: @richardsudan
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