Obituary, Ian Law: Former Emeritus Professor, School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Leeds.

By Gary Craig

It is with great sadness that the Social Policy Association announces the very premature death, in late June, from pancreatic cancer, of Ian Law, most recently Professor of Social Policy at the University of Leeds.

Ian Law initially studied architecture at Liverpool University but switched to sociology, the discipline of his life-long partner, Jude, and took a PhD in that subject. He worked for a while for Leeds City Council in various capacities related to race equality and racial justice and this started his overwhelming commitment to racial justice which he took with him when he moved as a lecturer to Leeds University in 1991, where he very quickly established a Race and Public Policy unit to coordinate work in the department and in connection with local groups. For the next thirty years, he wrote, researched and was active at community, national and international levels in this highly contested and difficult area but never lost his capacity to work closely with others engaged in the same struggle on a comradely and open basis.

Whilst he often wrote for national and international academic audiences, he was equally at home writing for non-academic audiences and his commitment to the cause of racial justice always shone through. Some of his most important work was at a local level where he explored the injustices experienced by marginalised and often hidden minorities such as travellers and worked with me on a study of racism against Chinese people which revealed that they were amongst the most likely to be subject to racial assault and racial harassment. His work on globalisation and racism was significant and attracted the attention of Nelson Mandela University in South Africa which appointed him as an Honorary Professor.  He undertook early work on the issue of racism in higher education and the SPA’s growing commitment to examining racism within the social policy curriculum and in the structures of universities where it is taught can be seen as part of his legacy to the discipline. As one of his sons recently commented, ‘Ian was brave enough to say that universities could be institutionally racist well before they began reluctantly to acknowledge their part in slavery and colonialism’.

When I first started work thirty years ago seriously on the issue of ‘race’ and racism in social policy, and later on racism in higher education, Ian was one of the few guiding lights in a territory which was almost completely overlooked in our discipline. I turned to him from time to time for advice and support and we worked together on several major projects. He was thoughtful, generous with his time and energy, always willing to share his work and was, as well as an excellent theoretician and policy-oriented academic, a totally committed activist, working on key issues right up to his final illness The unfinished story of decolonising the university owes much to his pioneering work.

Ian was well-rounded: he was passionate about music, especially folk music, walking, climbing but above all he carried with him in his daily interactions that clear commitment to social justice which marked him out as an inspiration to many. I shall miss him even though our paths have crossed little in the past years and I hope the upcoming national Runnymede conference on racism and migrants at the beginning of September in Leeds University will find the time and space to honour his lifetime’s commitment to the issue of racial justice.

Malcolm Harrison, a close colleague at Leeds adds:

“I first met Ian when he was working on ethnicity, equality and development issues for Leeds City Council. He was keen to develop independent research, and began a collaborative relationship with the university that led into his becoming a lecturer with us. Over the years that followed I (and others) worked with Ian on many project bids linked to ethnic relations and anti-racism. I always found him terrific at identifying and refining important policy-relevant research foci and formulating practical empirical investigations around them. Of course, it was always very difficult for any of us to obtain sustained, solid or substantial funding for this kind of work, but – rather against the odds – Ian gradually built up an outstanding record of well-managed and insightful studies. He was undoubtedly both a key leader and a catalyst for research work and writing across the university, in his own and allied fields, as well as an invaluable team member and advisor for colleagues who were developing projects. Unsurprisingly, he and I shared an interest in our university’s own practices, and one of our collaborations decades ago was a pioneering small-scale investigation of undergraduate admissions and ethnicity at Leeds. We were really pleased and rather impressed when this little study was welcomed and fully facilitated by a key person in the university’s senior administration!

Over time Ian worked on multiple fronts, always seeking to do research that would have an impact and help enable positive change. For many years he was an invaluable contributor to significant research work and international networking on housing, communities and ethnicity undertaken at Leeds, and in that context he was one of the three-person team that produced the first major comparative analysis of housing exclusion, discrimination and anti-discrimination across countries. This covered fifteen member states of the EU, and was commissioned by an award I got from the then European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.

Both in his expert teaching and supervision, and when projects were developed, Ian always sought to create and maintain inclusive work environments. A number of us shared with him the hope that external research funding might provide openings for making the university workforce more representative, and Ian often also sought to reach out to communities and informants by acknowledging their potential roles as research advisors and participants. He was in many ways a pioneer in research project planning and design, and in ‘bringing through’ more people from minority ethnic backgrounds.

At a personal level Ian was very supportive when people were in difficulties. As Head of School he was highly professional, and an excellent advisor and leader. He was very well liked amongst the students he taught or supervised, and I always enjoyed supervising higher degree students alongside him”.

Photograph provided by the University of Leeds

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