- Interview by
- Perry Blankson
Earlier this summer it was announced that Hakim Adi, Britain’s leading historian of Pan-Africanism, modern African political history, and the African diaspora, was to be made redundant by the University of Chichester. At the same time, the university also announced plans to suspend all recruitment to his groundbreaking master’s by research (MRes) course.
The move prompted an immediate backlash. Thousands signed an open letter to the university vice-chancellor, Professor Jane Longmore, calling for the decision to be reversed. The University and College Union (UCU) general secretary, Jo Grady, described the decision as ‘nothing less than an attack on black academia’.
Adi has been a leading figure in African Studies in Britain for many years. A former chair of the Black and Asian Studies Association, he also helped to found the History Matters group and the Young Historians Project (YHP) to increase the prevalence of historians from African and Caribbean heritage in departments across the country.
In a twist of irony, Adi’s latest work, African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History, was shortlisted for the prestigious Wolfson history prize in September — just weeks after the University of Chichester’s decision to axe his position and his course.
To discuss the ongoing campaign against that decision, and the broader significance of his work, Hakim Adi sat down with his former mentee and Tribune columnist Perry Blankson.
The MRes course on the history of Africa and the African diaspora was one of its kind in Britain. How did the course come about?
The course grew out of the History Matters conference that we organised in 2015 to consider why there were so few young people of African and Caribbean heritage studying history in Britain. It was prompted by a newspaper headline which said that only three black students had trained as history teachers the previous year. So, a few of us got together to look at the wider problem of under-representation of black people in the history world. The conference was held in April 2015, and one of the recommendations was to establish a university-level course, which could encourage black students to come back to history. So, I set up the MRes in the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester in 2018.
We recruited every year, mainly in Britain, but also in the US, Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. It was a very successful course. The students loved it. We produced seven PhD students in five years, six of them at the University of Chichester. So it did everything it was set up to do.
What has the response been from the public to the campaign to save the course?
It’s an amazing campaign. It was largely started by my students. As a result of the course and my work in general, I had a group of sixteen postgraduate students, either master’s or PhD, all of African and Caribbean heritage — probably the biggest cohort of black postgraduate history students in the country. They’re the ones who really led the campaign, the petition, the letters of protest, the webpage, the fundraising, and so on.
We had over 12,000 signatures in just a few weeks from all over the world, every continent, and most people wrote comments talking about the importance of the course.
A lot of people wrote protest letters directly to the university. Then we’ve also begun a fundraising campaign for the legal case or cases that may be pursued. I think we’ve raised about £4,000 so far. There were various interviews on TV, radio, podcasts, newspapers, you name it.
There are people who have changed their whole Twitter account. They’ve got the logos of the campaign; they tweet every day — it’s a tremendous thing. People have written poems. It’s very inspiring, actually. And you feel a responsibility that so many people support what we’re trying to do. It’s quite overwhelming in many ways.
You mentioned that students are heavily involved in the campaign. Obviously you’re going to be impacted by this redundancy, but what have the effects on your students been?
That’s absolutely right — I just lose my job and my income, but the students are all in mid-study, mid-course. Ten of them are doing their PhD, five of them their master’s, and it effectively means that their studies are on hold. They have no supervisor; they know that there’s nobody else at the University of Chichester who can supervise them. The university hasn’t told them anything on the grounds of confidentiality, so there are no plans afoot to explain what is going to happen in the future. Some have talked about giving up in desperate moments. Some of them are saying they don’t want to go back to the University of Chichester. It’s incredibly disruptive.
It does seem that there’s a counter-campaign in the press by the University of Chichester. Are there any particular points of contention that you think should be set straight?
There are three main things that the university is alleging, which are essentially lies. The first thing it said was that closing this course didn’t really matter because there are loads of other courses up and down the country, and people can just go to them. This is completely untrue: this course is unique. There’s no other course in Britain or in Europe on the history of Africa and the African diaspora which is online and which deals with this history in this way. So that’s a falsehood, but, to be fair to the university, it doesn’t seem to have said that again.
The second falsehood is a calculation that the university presents. It claims to have spent £700,000 on the course and only got £150,000 back in fees. This is a piece of propaganda. Every time we ask the university, ‘What did you spend the £700,000 on?’, it can’t answer. It’s worth pointing out that £700,000 is not even the combined salaries of the six senior managers at the university. So let’s get things in proportion. If the university is interested in saving money, the senior managers could take a bit of a cut. That £700,000 figure certainly doesn’t relate to the salary that I used to earn and it has nothing to do with the marketing of the MRes, where very little money was spent.
The third falsehood is that only one student has graduated from the course in the last three years. That is just ridiculous. We have photos of the students who graduated last year, when we had more than three. At the present time, the university has five students who have graduated from the MRes and are carrying out their PhD studies. So the university is really attacking its own course, its own students, writing its own students out of history.
Your course is not the only thing at the University of Chichester to be targeted. One of your colleagues, Dion Georgiou, has also been made redundant. Do you feel this is a wider attack on history?
The university has obviously singled out some programmes over others, but it is in the context of the assault on humanities in general. I was made redundant from my last university as well, which closed down the entire history department about fourteen years ago. There’s been an attack on humanities and history for some time. I think it has intensified since 2020; there’s been a pushback from the establishment about ‘woke’ historians. History and the humanities are often dangerous subjects because they teach what the powerful don’t want to see taught.
There have been comments by the prime minister recently that some university courses are more important than others, and some are more useful to big business than others. These kind of ideas are around. One doesn’t know the motives of the university, of course. What we do know is the impact: to close down a course which was largely recruiting students of African and Caribbean heritage in a subject where those students are under-represented. So, those who want to study history are going to be less able to do it; there’s going to be a pathway missing.
Can you tell us a bit about the support the campaign has received from unions and institutions?
There have been all kinds of people who have supported us, such as the Black Equity Organisation and the Africa Centre; trade unions, such as my own union — the UCU [University and College Union] — and some of its branches have published resolutions. We’ve had support from MPs like Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who actually put down an early day motion condemning the university.
The support which my union nationally has given me, apart from the statement by the general secretary, has not been effusive. But I think in general, certainly at the branch level and at the wider community level, there’s been very considerable support. I definitely encourage UCU branches to support us — that may be something that we try to develop more in the coming weeks.
How can people reading this interview who aren’t in those institutions support the campaign?
We have a GoFundMe page where people can give money for the legal campaign. The students in particular need that support because they are not represented by a student union or by NUS [National Union of Students]. We’d encourage everybody to give what they can. If everybody who signed the petition or signed the letter gave us £10, we’d be in a very good position. If organisations can give more than that — some union branches have given us several hundred pounds — that would be great.
I think people have to understand this is not just about somebody being made redundant or students who have lost their supervisors. It is an attack on a particular kind of history — the history of Africa and the African diaspora — denying people in Britain the opportunity to study this history. Because, as I said, there are no other courses like the MRes.
Furthermore, the way the university has gone about it — not just the misinformation detailed before but telling me I should crowdfund the course and things like that — is insulting to everybody who’s concerned with the history of African and Caribbean heritage. Our history is being disrespected, treated as if it’s of no consequence. I think that’s completely unacceptable, particularly in the context of heightened awareness of the importance of this history.
Amidst the attack on your course by the University of Chichester, you’ve been shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize for your most recent book, African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History. Does that nomination feel like a vindication of the MRes and your work in general?
The work I’ve done for eleven years has been demolished by the university. The Wolfson — I don’t know whether you say it came at the right time or the wrong time — but it came when it came. It shows that, as you say, a prestigious history prize recognises that this history is important, thinks that the book is important, therefore thinks that my work is important and worthy of recognition. It’s not necessarily just for me individually, but I think for all of us. It draws attention to people who are unsung heroes, people who plodded away for years to try and get this history written and presented. I’m just one of them.
But I think it’s good; it’s raised the profile. We also have to remember that this is a struggle. During 2020 people were on the streets in Britain, protesting against the murder of George Floyd and raising issues about state violence and state racism here. At the same time, they were raising more general issues about the teaching of history and the inclusion of the histories of people of African and Caribbean heritage in this country. Anything which draws attention to that struggle, which has been going on for many years, is a very important thing.
For example, the work the Young Historians Project (YHP) is doing to document that struggle. How has this come about? Why has it been so difficult? What are the challenges? Who are the people who’ve done this work? The struggle itself is important. We can never give up for a minute because, if we do, things like what’s happening now will happen unopposed. Years of work can get disrupted.
The prize nomination has also highlighted the opposition to the book and the people who have attacked it. People have been kind enough to show me all these racists on YouTube who seem to spend half their lives attacking my books. They’ve come out of their holes again. But this also shows that a spotlight is shining on the history.
Looking to the future, how do you and the campaign intend to continue the fight?
I suppose there are three aspects to it. One is to hold the University of Chichester to account. In the past, courses have been closed down, such as the one at Goldsmiths and the courses that I taught at the University of Middlesex thirteen or fourteen years ago. We have to hold these institutions to account and try to prevent that in the future. That means a legal challenge over the closing of the course, over the way the students have been treated, and over the way that I’ve been treated.
Then there are the definite practical implications in terms of students’ work being disrupted. People are in the middle of PhD and master’s programmes; their studies are being disrupted, and we need to find a solution to that. Where are students going to be able to finish their degrees and where is the MRes — or something like it — going to exist? We’re looking to other universities to fill that gap and to say, ‘We recognise the importance of this history, we would give the students and Hakim a home.’ We hope that will happen. There are various negotiations going on as we speak.
The last thing is, keep these struggles going. YHP is a part of developing this history, of getting it more well known, of understanding it, of presenting it to people. History Matters, with its own online journal and its conferences, is part of that work. There’s a broader movement of people who are concerned with history and the national curriculum. We need to try to unite all these disparate forces and projects and initiatives more closely together, to at least encourage them to talk to each other and work with each other, including institutions like Black Cultural Archives and many others up and down the country.
So it’s ongoing work, that’s the point I’m making. This is something I’ve been involved in for thirty years. It’s a setback and there will be setbacks along the way. You just carry on. It’s necessary. We have to find ways of overcoming the problems that confront us. We have to find a way of solving the problems and not giving up, not getting dispirited or depressed — because this is our history and it is important to all of us.