Professor Eric Sunderland: Vice-Chancellor of Bangor University who brought calm after a period of turbulence

Few who witnessed the results of the referendum on Welsh Devolution late on the night of 18 September 1997 will forget the evident relish with which Professor Eric Sunderland, the Chief Counting Officer, announced that the Yes campaign had won by a slim but sufficient majority of 6,721 votes and that the proposal to establish a National Assembly was therefore approved by the people of Wales.

The clip has been shown over and over again on television in Wales, and the excitement and historic significance of the occasion, together with the Professor's beaming face, have entered the iconography of recent Welsh politics. It was as if Wales had scored a winning drop-goal in the closing minutes of an international rugby match and the roar was deafening; it gave him special satisfaction that the very last Yes result, which clinched the matter, came from Carmarthenshire, his native county.

Born at Blaenau, near Ammanford, in 1930, he went from Amman Valley grammar school to the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where he took a first in Geography and Anthropology, and then a master's degree; he was later awarded his doctorate by University College, London. After military service, he worked for a year as a research scientist with the Coal Board, but took his first academic post in 1958 as a lecturer in the Anthropology department of Durham University, where in due course he was appointed Professor and Head of Department in 1971; he also served as Pro-Vice-Chancellor from 1979 to 1984.

By the time he returned to Wales in 1984 he had a reputation as an anthropologist of distinction, having published such substantial books as Elements of Human and Social Geography: some anthropological perspectives (1973), Genetic Variation in Britain (with D. F. Roberts, 1973) and The Exercise of Intelligence: biosocial preconditions for the operation of intelligence (with Malcolm T. Smith, 1980), to which he later added Genetic and Population Studies in Wales (with Peter S. Harper, 1986). He had also held some of the most important posts in his specialist field, including those of Honorary Secretary of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Secretary General of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Societies and Chairman of the Biosocial Society.

His appointment as Principal at Bangor in 1984 followed a turbulent phase in the history of the University College of North Wales, as it then was, and much was expected of the new man in healing the schisms caused by his predecessor, the autocratic Sir Charles Evans, whose tenure had come to what Dr David Roberts, Bangor's Registrar, in his history of the institution published in 2009, called "a bitter and querulous end". Evans, best-known for his role as deputy leader of the team that conquered Everest in 1953, had shown "a cold indifference" to the wider use of Welsh in the college's affairs and, moreover, had been highly unpopular among both staff and students during these "dark and divisive days, the darkest in the University's history", on account of his vindictive attitude towards those who disagreed with him.

Eric Sunderland, like his predecesssor a Welsh-speaker, was much better disposed towards the growing demand for teaching in Welsh, his first language, which he spoke fluently and elegantly, and in this and many other ways he proved to be the very antithesis of Evans. Although a patriotic Welshman, it had taken some persuasion to entice him from Durham, where his family was happily settled, but in the end he accepted the post with pleasure and took office just weeks before the college's official centenary celebrations. The appointment proved a popular one and, with his genial personality and abundant communication skills, he soon won over a wide swathe of the academic staff.

At ease in social gatherings, and ably supported by his wife, Patricia, he took his role as ambassador for the college seriously and few could fail to respond to his broad grin and friendly nature. He even made a point, early in his principalship of going to speak to students at Neuadd John Morris-Jones, the hostel for Welsh-speakers where many of those who had been protesting against the former principal were housed, thus spiking the guns of the Young Turks who had been disrupting the campus. His lecture "Esblygiad Dyn" ("Man's evolution"), delivered at the National Eisteddfod in 1985, demonstrated his ability to treat complex scientific topics in his first language.

Slowly the acrimony began to subside and a new mood of optimism started to be felt. Even so, and despite some gratifying achievements, Sunderland had to preside over a raft of administrative problems, not least those having to do with funding cuts by the UGC, and some hard choices about whether to maintain teaching in certain disciplines. This he did with sympathy and common sense and always with regard for the human cost involved. Despite his warm engagement with people, he had a tough inner core which stood him in good stead in the piranha pools of academe. That the college survived the troubled years of the 1970s and 1980s and the financial stresses of the 1990s was in large measure due to him and his senior officers.

Sunderland also played an active part in public life, and served on myriad bodies across the UK, where his skills were always appreciated. In Wales alone he was Chairman of the Local Government Boundary Commission (1994-2001), a member of the Welsh Language Education Development Committee (1987-94), the British Council (1990-2001), the Court of Governors of the National Museum (1991-94), and the Broadcasting Council (1996-2000).

He was keenly interested in the arts: he was chairman of the Welsh Chamber Orchestra, vice-president of the Welsh Music Guild, and patron of Artworks Wales. I first met him when he was chairman of the Gregynog Press Board in the 1980s, where we often talked about our love of books and fine editions in particular. After his retirement he liked nothing better than attending concerts at the University and was involved in fostering its art collection.

Many honours came his way, including the Mahatma Gandhi Freedom Award from the College of William and Mary in Virginia (1989). He served as High Sheriff of Gwynedd (1998-99) and Lord Lieutenant of the county from 1999 to 2006, and was awarded the honorary degree of LLD by the University of Wales in 1997 and the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002.

Eric Sunderland, anthropologist and Vice-Chancellor of Bangor University: born Blaenau, Carmarthenshire 18 March 1930; Professor of Anthropology, University of Durham (1971-79); Pro-Vice-Chancellor, University of Durham (1979-84); Principal, later Vice-Chancellor, University College of North Wales, later Bangor University (1984-95); Emeritus Professor, University of Wales; married 1957 Patricia Watson (two daughters); OBE 1999; CBE 2005; died Beaumaris, Ynys Môn 24 March 2010.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning:The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier league

The Independent's live blog of today's Premier League action

News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
voices
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam