Arthur Tattersall

Deft Secretary of University College London
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The Independent Online

Arthur Tattersall was a great university administrator and a great and good man. This dates him to the period when it was possible to be a great university administrator and a great man, a period now virtually over. He was a universally admired Secretary of University College London between 1964 and 1978, the 11th and greatest of the 13 who held that office.

He headed the administration of that ever- growing institution in a relaxed and humane way, allowing two successive Provosts to continue well-known in the corridors of power and the studios of television: Lord Evans of Hungershall and Lord Annan. Ifor Evans was a civilised man of considerable charm, loved by all members of the college; Noel Annan was brilliant and flamboyant, more selectively admired. Arthur Tattersall had some of the outstanding qualities of both men, with the Evans side predominating.

Tattersall - "Arthur" to his many acquaintances, "Tat" to his even more friends - had a straightforward view of administration. Its sole purpose was to smooth the path of those carrying out the purposes of the institution. All obstacles in the way of excellent teaching and excellent research were to be smitten down. All incidental problems were to be dealt with and academics freed for their decisions to be carried out smoothly and without fuss.

He had a deft and diplomatic way of getting academic decisions to go the way he wanted, while appearing always to be the willing handmaiden of the committee or the board. He was a tower of good sense. When, having persuaded John North and myself to produce a history of UCL for the sesquicentenary in 1978, we asked what documents and sources we would be permitted to see, he said we could see anything we liked and dashed off a memo to the Records Office saying that we were to be shown any file or document without restriction. There was no nonsense about cut-off dates, sensitive areas, committees to scrutinise what we wrote. He never hid behind "health and safety" regulations, professional mumbo-jumbo, or the need to cover his back. He was quite untainted by "managerialism" in any form.

Life had well prepared him for taking on the running of UCL. In 1931-34 he had read for the Classical Tripos at Christ's College, Cambridge, achieving a double First. Six years of being Classics master at King Henry VIII School, Coventry, followed, and then five years of war service, starting in the Royal Tank Regiment and ending as a captain in Intelligence. After the war, he became Assistant Director of Education for Huntingdonshire, and then, in 1950, Deputy Academic Registrar of London University. Within the massive bastion of the Senate House, he honed his fine administrative skills, taking the minutes of the Academic Council and co-ordinating arrangements with the overseas colleges that London University was responsible for supervising.

Then he went to put the administration of one of them on a proper footing, serving as Secretary of Makerere University College in Uganda from 1955 to 1961. He returned to London University, becoming Warden of International Hall and also Secretary to the UGC's committee on university teaching methods, which produced the Hale Report (1964), now distressingly forgotten. He was being prepared for something by Sir Douglas Logan, the hugely powerful Principal of the university. "I have," wrote Logan, "literally known him since he was in short pants . . ." Tattersall had been two years junior to Logan at the Liverpool Collegiate School.

When UCL advertised for a new Secretary in 1963, hundreds of people applied, several generals, a couple of colonial governors, a few knights. Over 20 were interviewed, and none of them liked. Tattersall had not applied. At a late stage he was asked to do so, and he was immediately much liked. With his wife, Gisela, he spread laughter, music, and an air of cultured civilisation throughout UCL on top of the apparently effortless smooth administration.

When he retired, he gave a memorably prescient address entitled "Après moi le déluge", full of literary allusions and foreboding. He appeared to know how the gloom would get more and more inspissated for the universities for the rest of his lifetime (though admittedly things had got even worse in Uganda). He was also Public Orator of London University in 1975-78, quite as perceptively witty as Lord Evans and Professor Joel Hurstfield had been before him. He gave a memorable Crabtree Oration in 1978. He was rightly made an Honorary Fellow of UCL in 1979.

He acted for a time as Director of the Institute of Classical Studies, taking him back to his classical roots. He retreated to a peripatetic retirement in the country, in Sible Hedingham, Leicester, Newark and Grantham. Tat, always tall and crumpled, loved attending Crabtree and other dinners in London, giving up only when he went to sleep on the last train on the way back to Newark and had a dreadful experience in Doncaster.

Negley Harte