Stephen Fleet

Cambridge University administrator
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Stephen George Fleet, university administrator and mineralogist: born Ilford, Essex 28 September 1936; research physicist, Mullard Research Laboratories, Surrey 1961-62; Demonstrator in Mineralogy, Cambridge University 1962-67, Lecturer 1967-83, member, Council of Senate 1975-82, member, Financial Board 1979-83, chairman, Board of Exams 1974-83, Chairman, Bursars' Committee 1980-83, Registrary 1983-97 (Emeritus), Deputy Vice-Chancellor 2001-03; Fellow, Fitzwilliam House (later Fitzwilliam College) 1963-73, Junior Bursar 1967-73, Director of Studies in Physical Sciences 1971-74, Honorary Fellow 1997; Bursar, Downing College 1974-83, President 1983-85, Vice-Master 1985-88, 1991-94, 1997-2000, Master 2001-03, Honorary Fellow 2003; married 2002 Alice Percival (née Boyle); died London 18 May 2006.

Stephen Fleet devoted his life to enhancing the success and standing of Cambridge University. He was an outstanding chief administrative officer of the university and also underpinned developments in the funding of overseas graduate students and undergraduate students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. He was a founding Fellow of Fitzwilliam College and an exceptional Fellow, Bursar and latterly, in 2001-03, Master of Downing College.

Fleet was educated first at Brentwood School, Essex and then at Lewes County Grammar School, Sussex from where he won a scholarship to Cambridge in 1955 to read Natural Sciences, graduating with a First in Physics. He completed his PhD at the prestigious Cavendish Laboratory in 1961, before working very briefly away from Cambridge at the Mullard Research Laboratories in Surrey.

He rapidly returned to Cambridge in 1962 as a University Demonstrator, then Lecturer in Mineralogy until 1983. During this period he researched the crystal structure of minerals, particularly phase transformations in minerals and meteorites, publishing jointly with his colleagues J.D.C. McConnell and P.H. Ribbe the first papers on the use of electron optics in mineralogy.

In 1963, Fleet was elected a Founding Fellow of Fitzwilliam House, soon to become Fitzwilliam College in 1966, and was intimately involved in the drafting of the new college's statutes. He served as Junior Bursar of the college and this was to mark the beginnings of a gradual shift in his career towards finance and administration in the university. He was proud to be elected an Honorary Fellow in 1997 and continued to support the college, serving twice as President of the Fitzwilliam Society.

Word had spread that he was a very talented Bursar and in 1974 Fleet was elected Fellow and Bursar of Downing College. He excelled as Bursar, introducing effective investment policies and sound financial management that enabled the college to recover from the substantial debts incurred through refurbishment and development projects in the 1960s. Astonishingly, managing the college's finances was seen then as a part-time job and thereby he established his reputation for working excessively long hours - in the department by day and in his college office long into the night.

It was during this period of growing financial stability that, under successive Masters Sir Morien Morgan and Sir John (later Lord) Butterfield, the Senior Tutor John Hopkins and the Admissions Tutor Martin Mays, Downing's academic reputation grew progressively. Fleet not only ran the finances very effectively, but also took great interest in the provision for graduate students who were increasingly being admitted to the college. He also became a somewhat unlikely, but enthusiastic, supporter of the Boat Club, both riding along the towpath shouting encouragement and later being central to the creation of a Centenary Trust Fund which secured a wonderful new boathouse for the club.

Increasingly, Fleet became involved in the running of Cambridge University, serving on the Council of Senate and chairing the intercollegiate Bursars' Committee. His growing reputation as an administrator resulted in his appointment in 1983 as Registrary, the senior administrative post in the university at that time. He firmly believed that the holders of such offices should, like himself, have experienced life as academics so that they could bring an appreciation of what it was like to work as a teacher and researcher in a university with a frequently puzzling system of governance, which he came to know in every detail.

It was during his time as Registrary that Cambridge University built up the momentum that still keeps it in the top league. It is widely recognised that he played a significant part in leading, quietly and ably, an administration which, despite the growing demands upon it, became increasingly well-run and efficient. He continued to work immensely long hours to achieve this. He had an intensely personal management style, preferring to talk to his staff and colleagues face to face rather than phone them (and certainly not use the curt, frequently unaddressed, unsigned e-mails that substitute for communication today). He also effected a change from rotating two-year Vice-Chancellors drawn from among the Heads of House to the full-time five-year position it is now, which has undoubtedly enhanced the development of longer-term strategies for the university.

It is impossible to overestimate Fleet's immense contribution to the funding of graduate and, more recently, undergraduate students in Cambridge. From a small beginning in 1981, when the university allocated an initial £30,000 as an incentive to attract funds for overseas students to offset the large increase in fees that had been introduced, various Cambridge Scholarship Trusts were established. He worked as Treasurer for each of the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust, the Cambridge Overseas Trust and more recently, the Gates Cambridge Trust (established by the largest endowment ever received from a philanthropist by any UK university) and continued working for the trusts after his retirement and up until his death. In particular, he helped the trusts implement a strategy by which relatively modest amounts of "in house" resources elicited matching support and more from outside. In this way Cambridge University has established a uniquely effective system of financial support for overseas students.

He also served as Trustee, then Treasurer, of the Isaac Newton Trust set up by Trinity College to provide bursaries for financially disadvantaged UK undergraduates, something which had been close to Fleet's heart since his arrival in Cambridge as an undergraduate supported by the award of a then valuable scholarship. Fleet developed the algorithm by which colleges other than Trinity eventually were persuaded to contribute to this scheme in relation to their means. Thus, the schemes of awards at Cambridge, both for overseas and for domestic students, owe a great deal to his endeavours during the 25 years of his involvement.

Retiring as Registrary in 1997 following a period of ill health, Fleet not only continued his work with the scholarship trusts, but also with several other trusts and committees, including the Strangeways Laboratory, the Cambridge Housing Society and, as Treasurer, the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

He continued to play an extremely active role in Downing College. Having served as President both of the college and the Downing Association, and twice as Vice-Master during his period of office as Registrary, he was again elected as Vice-Master in 1997. He would joke that this was a non-job, involving no more than showing a face when the Master could not show his, but in fact he had an important impact on the running of the college at a particularly demanding time. The sure and compassionate style he displayed during that period meant that he was elected with acclaim as Master at the end of 2000, taking office in January 2001 following the departure of the previous Master, Sir David King, to become Government Chief Scientific Adviser.

Fleet had been devoted to Downing ever since he became a Fellow. He was deeply knowledgeable about its history and was often to be found delving into its archives to add to his remarkable memory for facts and events that shaped the development of the college. He was elated by his election as Master and served with great success during the less than three years until his retirement in 2003, required by the college statutes on attaining the age of 67. He commanded respect and affection from students, staff and Fellows for his gentle but effective, consensus-driven approach to leadership.

He was seemingly shy and reserved, not given to public displays of emotion and this perhaps gave rise to the misleading impression of his being somewhat lonely and distant and an apparently confirmed bachelor who, during the Seventies and Eighties, lived as a resident Fellow in Downing. He was a distinctive figure: tall, with a somewhat stooped gait, invariably with a well-worn hat pulled onto his head and a most distinctive bicycling style, easily identified as he headed to his office or the train station with an old leather briefcase thrust into a basket on the handlebars. But in reality, he was extremely approachable: kind, warm, generous and with a readiness to listen and give wise counsel to anyone who sought it. He possessed a sometimes dry and often mischievous sense of humour and enjoyed teasing whenever and wherever he could get away with it.

Fleet had a deep love of music, indeed had sung in the choir at Glyndebourne when a schoolboy in Sussex. He gave the strongest support and encouragement to talented young musicians at Downing, purchasing a grand piano for students to practise on and for recitals in the Regency drawing room in the Lodge, where it remains in active use. During the first year of his Mastership, he surprised everyone by announcing, after making light of the possibility earlier in the year, that he was engaged to be married to Alice Percival, whom he had met in 1999 during his work for the Fitzwilliam Museum. They were married in the Chapel at Downing College in December 2002 and there followed the happiest time in Stephen Fleet's long and previously work-oriented life in Cambridge.

He was looking forward to an active and fulfilling retirement with Alice when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Barry Everitt