SOAS University of London

Tributes paid to former SOAS Director Professor Paul Webley, CBE

3 March 2016
Paul Webley picture

SOAS University of London has paid tribute to its former Director, Professor Paul Webley, CBE, who has passed away aged 62. Paul joined SOAS in 2006 and served as its eighth Director and Principal until 2015.

Current SOAS Director, Baroness Valerie Amos said: “Paul made a tremendous contribution to both SOAS and the wider academic community - as an inspired leader of our renowned specialist institution, as an eminent economic psychologist, as a member and chair of many influential bodies in higher education and as an unstinting champion of specialised research and of freedom of speech. His work was fittingly recognised in the award of a CBE in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list.”

“As we approach our centenary in 2016-17, SOAS can be proud to have had Paul as its champion and leader for the last decade. He leaves a great legacy. Paul’s warmth, generosity and loyalty was felt by all. The whole SOAS community of staff and students, alumni and friends and supporters are greatly saddened by his loss and our thoughts are with Julie and his family.”

An economic psychologist by training, Paul graduated from the LSE with both a first class honours degree and a doctorate on children’s perception of deception. He joined SOAS after 26 years of distinguished research, teaching and leadership at the University of Exeter, where he served as Deputy Vice Chancellor 2003-2006.

Professor Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Exeter said: “The University of Exeter was hugely fortunate to count Paul as a valued staff member for 26 years, starting out as a Lecturer, becoming Head of the Department and School of Psychology in 1993, Deputy Vice-Chancellor in 2003 and Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor in 2005. Paul was not just a valued colleague, but was quite simply one of the nicest and most widely respected people I have ever met. He understood the need for change at Exeter and led the process from the mid-1990s in modernising the institution. His legacy at Exeter is enormous, and he will be truly sorely missed by everyone who worked with him. Our thoughts are with Julie and the family.”

In his first three years as SOAS Director, Paul developed strong personal relationships with universities and funders in South Korea, Japan and China, including Taiwan. Under his leadership the School significantly strengthened its academic position. The study of Politics, Economics, Law, Business and Management, and Development Studies grew apace in line with the burgeoning interest in these fields among undergraduate and postgraduate students from all over the world. The growth in the number of students at SOAS was phenomenal, from about 2,000 to nearly 5,000 during his period of office.

Paul took a strong approach to tackling the School’s long-term future, and strengthening its financial base. His commitment inspired funders to support specialist areas of scholarship – most notably the £20m gift to SOAS from the Alphawood Foundation, Chicago in 2013, one of the largest charitable donations ever made to a UK university. This has helped to transform the study and understanding of Southeast Asian art and supported state-of-the-art renovation of the North Block of Senate House on the SOAS Bloomsbury estate.

Paul was also a fierce advocate of the importance of free and informed debate on some of the most contentious and hotly disputed issues in a number of areas of the world.

His inspiring vision for the School also led to the creation of two new institutes - the China Institute and the South Asia Institute, bringing together academics, public servants, media and the business sectors to debate key issues of global concern, thereby enhancing the experience of our students.

Former Chair of the Board of Trustees Tim Miller who worked closely with Professor Webley during his time at SOAS said: “Paul’s untiring commitment to the study of Asia, Africa and the Middle East has been an inspiration and a beacon to the internationalist spirit in this country. His passionate optimism, tempered by a psychologist’s dispassionate understanding of behaviour and motivation, has enabled him to have a significant impact on both higher education and Britain’s engagement with the world beyond Europe.”

In the wider academic arena, Paul was involved with the educational provision of the University of London as a whole in his capacity as University Deputy Vice-Chancellor, helping to direct the development of its Library and its student provision amongst other things. The University of London flag on Senate House was lowered to half-mast on Thursday as a mark of respect.

Paul took on a national role as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the UK Council for International Student Affairs. He was also a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Economic Psychology and the former President of the International Association for Research in Economic Psychology. He was elected to the Academy of Social Sciences in 2010 as a mark of his significant academic contribution in the field of economic psychology where he had contributed to more than 140 academic publications and collaborated with researchers throughout Europe.

A memorial service for Paul will be held at SOAS and books of condolence have been made available in the reception areas of College Buildings and the Brunei Gallery. Members of the SOAS community wishing to pass on their respects to Paul’s family should email and any letters and cards should be forwarded to Room 115, the Directorate office.