Professor Alan Gilbert: Historian who became the highly successful first Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University

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The Independent Online

Alan Gilbert was a distinguished historian, transformational leader and effective defender of the value and importance of universities. He died less than a month after he retired as the inaugural President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester, Britain's biggest university.

In particular, he will be remembered as a passionate supporter of students. Everything he did was characterised by a fundamental commitment to the creation, application and transmission of knowledge through open, disciplined and rational inquiry. He believed that universities must be a core and valued part of our societies and that they exist principally for the enduring betterment of humankind.

His own academic career began with strong credentials. Born in Brisbane, he graduated with first-class honours from the Australian National University in 1965 before completing an MA in History in 1967. He obtained a D.Phil in Modern History from Oxford in 1973.

Before taking on management responsibilities as Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of New South Wales in 1988, he had been a prominent teacher and history researcher, publishing widely on British and Australian themes, with a particular interest in the secularisation of modern western culture. He was one of the four general editors of Australians: A Historical Library, an 11-volume history of Australia prepared for the 1988 Bicentenary. Throughout his later career in leadership in higher education he retained a real passion for scholarship and discovery and a true understanding of the values of those activities for the wider society.

Gilbert served as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Tasmania (1991-1995), and as Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Melbourne (1996- 2004). This made him the ideal candidate to lead Britain's newest and largest university, the University of Manchester, which was formed in October 2004 following the merger of the Victoria University of Manchester and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist).

Gilbert oversaw the physical transformation of the campus with more than £600m of investment in its buildings, and encouraged the University to mobilise the talents of its community in the service of humanity. Notable successes included a dramatic improvement in the University's research performance and the establishment of new cross-disciplinary research institutes addressing a range of social and environmental challenges. Under his leadership, the University also saw the introduction of the Manchester Leadership Programme, which allows students to engage in supervised voluntary work.

Gilbert came to Manchester with a wealth of experience internationally, including the initiation and being the inaugural chair of Universitas 21, a network of leading international research universities; membership of a Reference Group advising the Australian Minister for Education, Science and Training about a major reform agenda; and he was a member of the UK Prime Minister's Science and Technology Council and a Commissioner in the UK Commission for Employment and Skills in 2007.

To colleagues who worked closely with Gilbert, he was a truly inspirational leader, a man of huge intellect, with a remarkable ability to think differently. He cared passionately about students, and his speech which would have been presented at the University of Manchester's sixth Foundation Day later this year, was entitled: "It's the students, stupid." He also vociferously defended the value and importance of freedom of enquiry and of speech, even when this meant confronting values and beliefs very different to our own, and at times courted controversy from those less open-minded than himself.

Conversations with Alan were always informed and interesting. He was widely read and impressively knowledgable, fascinated by the nuances and gossip of British culture and keen to talk of his personal passions. He was a competitive runner, a very informed and enthusiastic cricket supporter and a fan of Chelsea FC, though there was regular banter with his colleagues who were of different persuasions.

An endearing memory for many of his colleagues will be Alan's great kindness, while his sense of humour and quick wit meant that he was always great company.

Alan David Gilbert, historian: born Brisbane, Australia 11 September 1944; Lecturer, Papua New Guinea University 1967–69; Lecturer, New South Wales University 1973–77, Senior Lecturer 1977–79, Associate Professor 1979–81, Professor of History 1981–88, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1988–91; Vice-Chancellor, Tasmania University 1991–95; Vice-Chancellor, Melbourne University 1996–2004; President and Vice-Chancellor, Manchester University 2004-10; AO 2008; married 1967 Ingrid Griffiths (two daughters); died Manchester 27 July 2010.