Academics, Agents and Activists: A history of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1916-2016

By Special Collections, SOAS Library|12th December 2016|Collections & Research|0 comments

Over the next few weeks John Hollingworth, Gallery Manager and co-curator of ‘Academics, Agents & Activists: a history of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1916-2016’, will be introducing this fascinating centenary exhibition currently on display at the Brunei Gallery until 17th December. The exhibition tells a history of the School from the perspective of its people and spaces, highlighting the contributions and experiences of a selection of individuals who represent the diversity and character of SOAS. It also showcases material from the incredibly rich archive collections at SOAS – both the School’s own institutional archive and material held by Archives & Special Collections, SOAS Library. The exhibition is organized around the tenures of the School’s Directors, with the fourth being that of Jeremy Cowan.

The Cowan Years (1976-1989)

Professor C D (Jeremy) Cowan, CBE, SOAS Director 1976 – 1989. Oil on canvas, by Richard Stone (b. 1951). Ref: SOASAW 2010.0112.01. © SOAS

Cowan was a historian of modern South East Asia and proved himself to be a gifted administrator taking over after a period of unprecedented growth. He faced many challenges: consolidation of the many new developments ushered in by the previous director, but also significant funding cuts which hit the university sector in the early 1980s. SOAS state funding was slashed by a third and over a quarter of academics had to be persuaded to retire early. In the process the School lost a large number of its world-leading scholars. This great contraction was managed skilfully by Cowan who saw it as an opportunity for the School to reorder its teaching and research priorities, laying the foundations for a recovery in the late 1980s.

The recovery of the School was aided by the so-called ‘Parker Report’ (1986), which was commissioned by the University Grants Committee (UGC) to assess national needs in Asian and African studies. The report criticized the earlier cuts which had been necessary to keep the School solvent and as a result, in 1987-88, funding was received enabling the creation of 18 new posts in addition to extra funding for the library and ‘special factor funding’ for subjects which were in the national interest but had low student numbers.

In spite of the major reduction in staff and teaching provision, there were some new developments during Cowan’s tenure including the expansion of the Extramural Division, which brought SOAS expertise to other sectors and non-university users to SOAS. A Centre of Music Studies was created in 1979, a new Centre for Art and Archaeology was established in 1981, and the Japan Research Centre was founded in 1978. A number of new young academics were also hired who would later go on to be leaders in their field including Graham Furniss, Andrew Huxley and Ulrich Kratz. In some subject areas, new degree subjects were introduced, such as the MAs in Social Anthropology and Hausa.

In 1981 Princess Anne, The Princess Royal succeeded the Queen Mother as the University of London’s 10th Chancellor. Pictured here visiting the School with Cowan and Professor Graham Chapman, Head of Geography (1987 – 1994). © SOAS

Student numbers gradually increased at the same time, reaching about 724 full-time students in 1982. Half of these were women and nearly a third were from overseas. From 1985-1987 Aung San Suu Kyi pursued a research degree in Burmese literature at SOAS, where her husband Michael Aris (d. 1999) had completed his PhD in Tibetan Studies in 1978. In 1988 she returned to Burma, thereafter dedicating her life to its freedom movement. She was made an Honorary Fellow at SOAS in 1991.

At the end of his tenure, Cowan was thanked for his ‘skill and steadfastness in guiding the School through the difficult years of financial stringency.’ He was also remembered fondly for his personal character:

“Jeremy Cowan had a natural authority. He could be direct and imposing and on occasion might appear distant but generally his manner was avuncular and reassuring, qualities sorely needed at that time. Those colleagues who came to know him well, found an engaging and often highly sociable man. With his raffish hats, pipe, and, in his earlier years, his racy sports car, he had style.” (ASEASUK News, no. 5, 2014)

Staff outside the Philips Building, SOAS, June 1982. Ref: SOAS Picture Archive. SOAS/SPA/3/50. © SOAS


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About Special Collections, SOAS Library

Broadly speaking, our collections reflect the British interaction with Africa, Asia and the Middle East over the last 250 years, and include archives of missionary societies, NGOs and campaign groups, and business organisations, as well as papers of individuals, including diplomats, campaigners, and academics. If you have any questions, or comments, please get in touch! email: tel: +44 (0)20 7898 4180

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