Charting the chancellors

There may not be many Newcastle students who are aware of the men (and it has, so far, only been men) in charge of their university.

The resignation of Chris Brink as vice-chancellor in November 2015 was announced to students via email before making its way to the front page of The Courier. As it happens the paper mistakenly brought his resignation forward by 12 months; never mind The Sun, even student newspapers can get things wrong sometimes.

The fact that nobody noticed this mistake, published on Monday morning, until Tuesday afternoon is perhaps revealing of the lack of student interest in the man at the top.

The situation isn’t helped by the confusing terminology. The chancellor is a ceremonial role, while the chief executive of the university is the vice-chancellor, now officially “vice-chancellor and president” in an attempt to clarify the importance of the role.

Since its foundation as a university in 1963, Newcastle has been governed by seven vice-chancellors and is on its fourth chancellor:

Chancellor Vice-Chancellor
1963 Hugh Percy, Duke of Northumberland Charles Bosanquet
1968 Henry Miller
1976 Ewan Stafford Page (acting)
1978 Laurence Martin
1988 Matthew Ridley, Viscount Ridley
1991 Duncan Murchison (acting)
1992 James Wright
1999 Chris Patten
2001 Christopher Edwards
2007 Chris Brink
2009 Liam Donaldson
2017 Chris Day
Bosanquet tribute
The Courier’s tribute to Bosanquet on his retirement

The University was created out of King’s College, University of Durham, and the rector of the college since 1952, Charles Bosanquet, became the first vice-chancellor. His predecessor as rector was Eustace Percy, a Conservative politician after whom the Percy Building is named. Eustace’s nephew, Hugh Percy, was the Duke of Northumberland from 1940, and installed as chancellor of the new university in 1964.

In 1968 Bosanquet was replaced by Henry Miller, who told the Courier “that he had taken on the ask willingly and was looking forward to it” but that “the job of taking over from as good a VC as Dr Bosanquet will be extremely difficult also.”

Miller 68-76
Henry Miller, pictured in the Courier in 1968 and 1976

Miller had studied medicine at Newcastle in the 1930s, before returning to the college as a lecturer after the war, working his way up to be Dean of Medicine. As vice-chancellor he was popular with students and with the Courier. Dianne Nelmes, president of the Students’ Union from 1973-4 described him as a “students’ vice-chancellor” and he received glowing tributes from students when he died in office in 1976. The fact that Newcastle saw so little of the student protests plaguing other UK universities in the late 1960s was even attributed to his “empathy and skill”.

Miller tribute

A computer scientist, Ewan Stafford Page, served as acting vice-chancellor following Miller’s death, before Laurence Martin took over in 1978. His background was in history, politics, and war studies, and he remained as vice-chancellor until the end of 1990.

By this point Matthew Ridley, Viscount Ridley, another Conservative politician, had replaced the Duke of Northumberland as chancellor.

When Martin stood down as vice-chancellor a former president of the Students’ Union, Duncan Murchison, filled the role on a temporary basis until James Wright took up the post in 1992. The Courier regularly campaigned against his “semesterisation” and “modularisation” plans, but to no avail.

Edwards column
This article from November 2002 was one of several Edwards wrote for The Courier

Wright was replaced by Christopher Edwards, also from a medical background, nine years later. Edwards enjoyed a close relationship with The Courier, often writing articles explaining university decisions.

South African Chris Brink took over in 2007, before passing the baton on to another medical man, Chris Day, who began his tenure in 2017.

Newcastle’s strong tradition of medical teaching perhaps explains the prevalence of medical backgrounds to these vic§e-chancellors. Indeed, Newcastle’s latest chancellor, Liam Donaldson, also came to the role from medicine, previously serving as the UK’s Chief Medical Officer.

His predecessor as chancellor, however, was somewhat more controversial. When Viscount Ridley retired from the role in 1999 The Courier was outraged to learn that he would be replaced by Chris Patten, a(nother) Conservative politician who had been Governor of Hong Kong until its return to China just over a year before.

Patten appointment front page

According to The Courier his appointment was forced through Senate by Vice-Chancellor (and Courier villain) James Wright in “just TEN MINUTES without ANY questions being asked” (the paper was in full tabloid-mode at the time). Other contenders for the post included Richard Branson and Sir John Hall, who built the Metro Centre and owned Newcastle United.

Patten appointment student views

Patten appointment editorial
The end of a lengthy editorial following Patten’s appointment

Patten, who simultaneously served as chancellor of the University of Oxford, caused further controversy in The Courier when he announced his resignation in 2008, just days after making a speech calling for tuition fees to rise above the then-level of £3,140 a year. He described this amount as “intolerably low”, much to the disgust of The Courier.

His replacement as chancellor, Liam Donaldson, has so far only appeared on The Courier‘s front page once, on the day of his inauguration, in an article which focussed more on his comments against cheap alcohol that he made in his previous role as Chief Medical Officer.

The Courier wished Chris Day “the very best of luck” when he was appointed the new vice-chancellor in January 2017. Time will tell if he will receive the glowing tributes the paper afforded to Bosanquet and Miller, or hostility it showed more recently towards Wright and Patten.


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