UCL News


Spotlight on... Prince Saprai

21 June 2023

This week we meet Prince Saprai, Professor of Law in the Faculty of Laws and soon-to-be the Faculty’s Deputy Dean for Strategy. Here, he chats to us about promoting diversity in the Faculty and his participation at the upcoming Disagreeing Well at UCL event.

A man wearing black blazer, posing in front of a camera

What is your role and what does it involve? 

I’m a Professor of Law in the Faculty of Laws. I'm currently on sabbatical leave having spent three years as the Faculty’s first Vice-Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) and in September I will take up a new role as the Faculty’s Deputy Dean for Strategy. My research is on the philosophy of contract law. In particular, I’m interested in the relationship between our everyday practice of making and keeping promises and contractual relations. During my sabbatical, I’ve been working on the role that trust plays in promising and whether it plays a similar role in contracting. People tend to think that trust doesn’t play much role in contract because most of our contracts are with strangers. I think that’s a huge mistake. As the philosopher Annette Baier pointed out we trust complete strangers all the time without noticing, for example, when we ask for directions, rely on a weather report or on a pilot to land a plane. I think trust is the glue that holds society together. Unsurprisingly, one of the reasons I’m thinking about this topic now is the damage done to the social fabric by some of our political leaders – I don’t think I need to name names!  

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role? 

I have been at UCL for nearly 14 years. Prior to that, I was an Assistant Professor at the School of Law, University of Warwick.  

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of? 

During my tenure as Vice-Dean for EDI (2019-2022), I played a role with many amazing colleagues and students in helping to promote a culture of fairness and inclusivity in Laws by devising and implementing a series of interventions around recruitment and progression; diversifying the curriculum and widening access and belonging. Working with the Director of Operations (Thea Gibbs and formerly Beth Beasant) we integrated these goals into a shared vision for the Faculty as ‘UCL’s Inclusive Law School’.  

Two achievements that really stood out (sorry – I know I’m cheating!) were: (1) the Faculty achieving its first Athena SWAN Bronze Award – this was thanks to the Herculean efforts (against the backdrop of a global pandemic) of our Athena SWAN Lead (Dr Silvia Suteu) and our Athena SWAN Researcher (Dr Ashleigh Keall), and (2) eliminating the Faculty’s BAME Awarding Gap from 13.6% in 2018/19 to 0% in 2021/22.  

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list 

Well, I’m lucky enough to be participating in a panel event next week on the topic of ‘How can we Disagree Well at UCL?’. As is well known, universities have been at the forefront of debates about ‘cancel culture’. At UCL, there have been clashes about whether certain EDI initiatives are a threat to academic freedom or freedom of speech. I’ve had to navigate such disagreements in roles, for example, in the Working Group on Racism and Prejudice and the Eugenics Inquiry Response Group. Although we live in fractious times, if you look back at the history of universities you see that it's sometimes during periods of intense disagreement that intellectual progress is made. I think this may tell us something about the nature of universities, which I’m hoping to explore in next week’s panel.  

What is your favourite album, film and novel? 

Album – Oasis, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? It came out toward the end of 1995. I had just turned 16 and it was a time of great optimism for the country. I have so many happy memories associated with it.  

Film – I love gangster movies. Now, most aficionados of this genre are likely to say The Godfather Part II is the best, but I prefer the rawness, the intensity and faster pace of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas - important scenes were improvised which adds to the edginess. And no movie has a better first line in the opening monologue: ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’.  

Book – I’m a huge fan of Michael Frayn and his Headlong is my favourite novel. It’s about a philosophy lecturer, Martin, who whilst on sabbatical stumbles upon a painting in his neighbour’s ramshackle country estate which he suspects might be a long-lost Bruegel. Instead of working on his book on nominalism, Martin starts researching Bruegel and hatches a plan to swindle his neighbour (who is none the wiser) out of the painting. It’s a beautifully written farce and for academics a cautionary tale about the dangers of displacement activity whilst on sabbatical.  

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)? 

What do you call James Bond taking a bath?  

Bubble 07.  

Who would be your dream dinner guests? 

Michael Frayn (see above); Zadie Smith (On Beauty is my second favourite novel); Steven Knight (fellow Brummie, UCL alum and writer of Birmingham gangland drama, Peaky Blinders – the coolest show ever); Aston Villa Legend and England Manager, Gareth Southgate; Martha Nussbaum (author of my favourite philosophy book, The Fragility of Goodness) and of course no dinner party would be complete without Jeremy Bentham (even if only in Auto-Icon form).  

What advice would you give your younger self? 

The same advice I give my kids: ‘This above all: To thine own self be true’ (Polonius, Hamlet). Or if you prefer: ‘You need to be yourself/ You can’t be no one else’ (Noel Gallagher, Supersonic).  

What would it surprise people to know about you? 

I’ve recently taken up British military history as a hobby. During the lockdown, my mother told me that my grandfather (who sadly I never met) was a Subedar-Major (Junior Commissioned Officer) in the British Indian Army and was part of the Burma campaign in World War II under the command of Lieutenant-General William Slim (a Brummie, as it happens). Slim led an incredibly diverse force including Sikhs (like my grandfather), Hindus, Muslims, Africans and Gurkhas which despite truly horrendous jungle conditions he somehow managed to pull together to prevail at the decisive Battle of Imphal in 1944 – although largely forgotten it was arguably Britain’s most important land battle (not least because the fate of India hung in the balance).  

What is your favourite place?   

I grew up in Handsworth which is a multicultural inner-city area of Birmingham. I love Handsworth because it reflects so much of the history and diversity of modern Britain: it played a pivotal role in the industrial revolution and in the twentieth-century immigrants from the colonies came to settle in the area including West Indians who worked in the munitions factories during World War II and many Indian communities (including my own family) who helped with the rebuilding effort after the war by working in the foundries. My school (Holyhead Secondary) was like the Commonwealth in a microcosm. Handsworth was remarkable because for all the diversity (perhaps because of it?), there was an incredibly strong sense of community. This is not to say that things were always easy: there were riots in 1981, 1985 and 1991 when I was growing up caused mainly by tensions with the police, poverty and unemployment.   

As I get older, I appreciate just how much this place forged my identity. The poet Benjamin Zephania, who is also from Handsworth, wrote a wonderful poem about the area called Soho Road Then and Now. The following lines sum up what Handsworth means to me:  

We buy and sell, we wine and dine 
That’s how we build a nation here 
With deep roots rooted everywhere, 
All of us who know this place 
Can claim it as our private space 
And publicly announce aloud 
We’re one people and Handsworth proud  

How can we disagree well at UCL?

Join us for the first event in our Disagreeing Well at UCL series on June 28, at the Bloomsbury Theatre and online – find out more and register to attend here.