Michael McCrum

Reforming Head Master of Eton, Cambridge Vice-Chancellor and Master of Corpus Christi College


Michael William McCrum, classicist, headmaster and university administrator: born Alverstoke, Hampshire 23 May 1924; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 1949-80, Second Tutor 1950-51, Tutor 1951-62, Master 1980-94, Honorary Fellow 1994-2005; Headmaster, Tonbridge School 1962-70; Head Master, Eton College 1970-80; Chairman, Headmasters' Conference 1974; Chairman, Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board 1981-87; Chairman, Faculty Board of Education, Cambridge University 1981-86, 1990-93, Vice-Chancellor 1987-89; Chairman, Joint Educational Trust 1984-87; Chairman, Governing Bodies Association 1989-94; President, Cambridge Society 1989-96; Chairman, Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England 1991-99; Chairman, Independent Schools Joint Council 1992-94; CBE 1996; married 1952 Christine fforde (three sons, one daughter); died Cambridge 16 February 2005.

Michael William McCrum, classicist, headmaster and university administrator: born Alverstoke, Hampshire 23 May 1924; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 1949-80, Second Tutor 1950-51, Tutor 1951-62, Master 1980-94, Honorary Fellow 1994-2005; Headmaster, Tonbridge School 1962-70; Head Master, Eton College 1970-80; Chairman, Headmasters' Conference 1974; Chairman, Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board 1981-87; Chairman, Faculty Board of Education, Cambridge University 1981-86, 1990-93, Vice-Chancellor 1987-89; Chairman, Joint Educational Trust 1984-87; Chairman, Governing Bodies Association 1989-94; President, Cambridge Society 1989-96; Chairman, Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England 1991-99; Chairman, Independent Schools Joint Council 1992-94; CBE 1996; married 1952 Christine fforde (three sons, one daughter); died Cambridge 16 February 2005.

Michael McCrum - a former headmaster of Eton and Tonbridge, Master for 14 years of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the last of the two-year vice-chancellors of Cambridge University - played an influential role as a quiet and far-sighted reformer in the development of higher education during the latter half of the 20th century.

He succeeded in combining a respect for the accepted values and practices of the university and college systems into which he was introduced at mid-century with recognition of the inevitable changes and their concomitant problems which took shape as his career progressed. To these he added visions of his own for the way ahead, exemplified particularly in Corpus Christi College, which provided the background of his entire working life and the foreground of most of it.

The son of a naval captain from an Ulster linen family, he was born in Alverstoke, opposite Spithead, in 1924. Educated at Sherborne School (where he was head of school, played for the first XV and won school prizes across the board in English, French and Classics), he served in the Royal Navy himself for three years before an early release scheme suddenly transferred him as sub-lieutenant RNVR from the South China Sea to Corpus, where in early 1946 he took up a scholarship in Classics.

By summer 1948 he had secured a double First in the Classical Tripos and an appointment as assistant master at Rugby School. At Rugby he acquired experience in teaching and dealing with young scholars, and, in addition, a fiancée, Christine, the daughter of the then Headmaster, Sir Arthur fforde, whom he married in 1952.

By that time, however, he was already back at Corpus as a Fellow. The Master, Sir Will Spens, who was a shrewd judge in such matters, had seen in McCrum a potential which combined with his scholarship an administrative talent and a faculty for dealing sympathetically with students as individuals. He became the college's Tutor and Director of Classical Studies in 1951, and his 11 years in that office are remembered with much affection by the undergraduates of the Fifties generation.

Many of them became lifelong friends, and he was warmly greeted at college reunions, which he unfailingly attended to the end of his days. The McCrum home was open to them at their need, and this warmth of access and regard was a notable change, remarked on in retrospect by Old Members, from the comparative remoteness of McCrum's tutorial predecessors. It was also a feature which carried over to his later years in the college.

He soon became involved in the affairs of the university at large as a member of its governing councils, and in 1960 he was a member of the committee chaired by Lord Bridges which considered the growing problems posed by the increasing number of university teaching and research appointees who were not Fellows of colleges and by the increase of postgraduate students within a structure essentially formed to deal with undergraduates.

His solution for Corpus bore fruit in the establishment of a postgraduate community focused on a substantial college property on the western edge of Cambridge, and by the election in 1962 of 11 new Fellows in one day, adding one-third to the existing Fellowship. His foresight in persuading his small college to this transformation was typical of his perception of and approach to problems that lay at hand or loomed ahead.

Despite these concerns he found time to lecture for the university in his special field of Ancient History, and to publish (in collaboration) a work on the Roman Emperors of the later first century AD ( Select Documents of the Principates of the Flavian Emperors: including the year of revolution, AD 68-96, with A.G. Woodhead, 1961).

But then came 18 years of absence from Cambridge. Successful college tutors were often seen as potentially successful headmasters. McCrum's own tutor had become Headmaster of Clifton, and in 1962 he himself accepted the headmastership of Tonbridge, a post he occupied for eight years to that school's great benefit. At the end of his time there it was said of him that "he has had a modernising and civilising influence upon the school and has ended many anachronistic practices"; he was "an energetic and efficient administrator and a reforming and able headmaster". Election to a Life Fellowship at Corpus had ensured that his college connection remained intact.

His record at Tonbridge was thus a firm basis for his appointment in 1970 as Head Master of Eton, and much the same could be said of his record there. A period of quiet reform resulted in the updating or gentle abandonment of various hitherto sacrosanct procedures, as for example a revision of the custom whereby admissions were at the discretion of individual house masters. During his tenure McCrum served for a year (1974) as a highly effective Chairman of the Headmasters' Conference.

However, some years before retirement from Eton came into view, the decision of Sir Duncan Wilson to step down as Master of Corpus Christi in 1980 revealed McCrum as an obvious candidate to succeed him, and his election opened the last phase of his career. He held office until 1994, and during this time, in his now characteristic fashion, he led the college through the many and increasingly rapid developments those years brought to the life and organisation of the university.

In 1982 a change of statute enabled women to be admitted to the hitherto all-male college; the entire statute-book underwent thorough revision; a substantial building programme was undertaken and an appeal to finance it launched; while the further integration of expanding numbers of students and Fellows reflected the general expansion of the university itself and the growth of research and short-term appointments. In the course of his Mastership McCrum welcomed to the Fellowship almost twice as many new Fellows as any one of his predecessors.

He was again much involved in the general affairs of Cambridge University and with membership of a variety of boards and committees. He served as Vice-Chancellor from 1987 to 1989, and it was typical of him, as one destined to preside over times of transition, that he was the last of the traditional two-year holders of that office, which his successor was to hold for a total of seven years.

It was characteristic also that, at the end of his vice-chancellorship, his address to the university emphasised the problems he foresaw which have now become part of the national scene. Among them he noted the increasing involvement and propensity to interference of central government in the funding and organisation of the university's activities, the incompatibility of financial rewards as between academics and the world of business and industry, and the resultant discouragement to an academic career; and he dwelt upon the need for a better public understanding of the nature of the university's role and place in society.

In retirement he and his wife continued to live in Cambridge. During his Mastership McCrum had published a study of Thomas Arnold, the famous Headmaster of Rugby ( Thomas Arnold, Head Master: a reassessment, 1989), and 10 years later his firm religious beliefs combined with his background as a historian of Rome to produce The Man Jesus: fact and legend (1999).

The entire record of Michael McCrum's career fits into what, in retrospect, may be seen as a consistent pattern of tactful reforming achievement, suited to its time and circumstance, which respected tradition rather than subverted it. Such a unity is the mark of life's fulfilment and of the legacy that endures.

A. Geoffrey Woodhead

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