Valerie Amos is a woman with a habit for making history. In 1997, she was joint first black woman to sit in the House of Lords, becoming Baroness Amos of Brondesbury. In 2003, she became the first black woman to sit in the UK Cabinet as Secretary of State for International Development. Later in 2003, she became the first black person to lead the House of Lords. Now, after over a decade of work on the international stage, including with the UN, her latest groundbreaking achievement is becoming the first black person to lead a British University.

This week, Baroness Amos is taking up the role of Director of the SOAS, part of the University of London. Baroness Amos will be leading SOAS as it enters its second century next year.

“I am honoured to be joining SOAS at this important point in its history. SOAS is a special institution with global recognition for its research and teaching on Asia, Africa and the Middle East, bringing different perspectives to scholarship, “ Amos said.

Inevitably, beyond her official role, there will be hopes that her appointment will be a catalyst for the change that is much needed in British academia. Earlier this year, a study by race equality thinktank Runnymede Trust found that “[d]espite the positive increase of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people in higher education, they are still underrepresented at the best universities, are still less likely than others to get jobs worthy of their education, and still have a less positive experience while at university.”

Similarly, recent figures have revealed that only 85 of the UK’s 18,500 professors are black. Baroness Amos seems keen to address this issue, saying “I was very concerned when I saw the national figures. There is clearly a broad national issue and I want to examine what we should be doing to address that.”

Indeed, Baroness Amos is not a stranger to addressing inequality, having co-founded the Amos Bursary which selects young men of African/Caribbean heritage at age 16 and supports them for the 4.5 years of their university experience. She also clearly has the operational and strategic skills to tackle the issues before her, having worked as under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator at the UN.

Baroness Amos is aware of the wider significance of her appointment.

“To have a black woman leading an institution like this and being a role model, people are expecting me to do things.” Given her remarkable achievements and experience, there seems little doubt that she will.


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