Obituary: Ernest Bettenson

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The Independent Online
Nature probably intended Ernest Bettenson to be a civil servant but, as he himself put it, the Commissioners felt otherwise and, as he had vague academic ambitions, university administration was a fair compromise.

He came to it in 1947 as Assistant Registrar in charge of the Newcastle office of the federal University of Durham. When, 29 years later, he retired, he had been the last Registrar of the federal university, the last Registrar and Secretary of King's College and the first Registrar of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, a combination of first and last appointments which is unlikely to be paralleled.

The origins of Newcastle University go back to 1834 with the establishment of a medical school, which, 18 years later, became the Medical School of Durham University, and in 1870 took the title of College of Medicine. The College of Physical Science (later Armstrong College), also in Newcastle, was founded in 1871. These two independent colleges formed part of Durham University and in 1908 were formally recognised as the Newcastle Division of the university; the Durham colleges formally comprising the "Durham Division". A reconstitution in 1937 merged the two colleges of the "Newcastle Division" into King's College. The continued growth of both divisions after 1945 led in 1963 to the dissolution of the federal University of Durham, and to the two divisions' becoming free-standing universities. Bettenson was intimately involved in this process.

The son of an Anglican priest, he was born in 1911. After a purely literary education at St John's School, Leatherhead, and at Christ's College, Cambridge, where he read History, he endured two spells of unemployment and spent a year training for the Cambridge Certificate of Education before entering local government.

His work in the Public Assistance Department of Surrey County Council and then in the wartime Ministry of Supply as a civil servant gave him an unusually varied administrative experience in which he gained a reputation for avoiding interdepartmental jealousies and for always seeking the co-operation of all the parties interested in a problem.

His first assignment after being appointed to Durham University in 1947 was to the Newcastle office. He was soon a feature of the university landscape at Newcastle and, to a lesser extent, at Durham. He regarded himself in relation to his academic colleagues somewhat as a civil servant should regard ministers or Members of Parliament. The analogy is not exact, but he thought he had a duty to advise and caution and intepreted it liberally. He showed skill in summarising the decisions of committees and it became accepted that his interventions as an interested onlooker were worth attention.

Bettenson was appointed Registrar of the federal university in 1952, by which time cracks were appearing in the constitutional fabric as the two divisions expanded. With the Vice-Chancellors being almost wholly absorbed by their divisional duties, the Registrar tended to be the only visible sign of the university's separate existence, exercising, as Bettenson himself saw it, responsibility without power.

He was appointed Registrar and Secretary of King's College in 1961 and Registrar of the newly constituted University of Newcastle upon Tyne in 1963. In the 1961-63 period, therefore, he was engaged in the three simultaneous activities of closing down the federal University of Durham, keeping the existing processes of King's College going, and arranging the new machinery for Newcastle University. He enjoyed the task of obtaining the necessary legislation and was proud of his part in the preparation of the university's statutes, which have withstood the test of time and continue to serve the university well.

Bettenson became something of an institution at Newcastle. He combined application to the job with a gift for expressing himself in a way that enlivened business. He spent long hours in his office, he lunched in the Senior Common Room, he talked shop incessantly and though he never took papers home he was really never off duty. He considered that only a habit of omnivorous reading prevented him from becoming excessively narrow in his interests.

Colleagues remember him as an accessible person, and while Bettenson had a higher regard for some of his colleagues than for others he was impartial in his official capacity. Although he disapproved of many developments in university administration he tried to work each scheme as it came forward and, in his own words, to clothe it in dignified grammatical language. He held there was no substitute for reasonable men, defined by him as people who shared or understood his point of view.

During the Vice-Chancellorship of Dr Henry Miller, in 1968-76, the university was entertained by the cheerful clash between two different temperaments in a relationship based on mutual disapproval, respect and affection. Bettenson's amusing, affectionate and discerning contribution to Remembering Henry (the published reminiscences of Henry Miller, 1977) is a wonderful example of Bettensonian writing and bears repeated reading.

He enjoyed writing his "historical introduction" The University of Newcastle upon Tyne . . . 1834-1971, published in 1971, and delivering in that year the two excellent lectures to mark the centenary of the founding of the College of Physical Science at Newcastle.

In his official life Bettenson was unrepentantly a mixture of contradictions, all solemnity on some occasions and impish informality on others. Much of what he said was reinforced with quotations, literary allusions and illustrative stories or parallels from history. The Bible was an essential tool for staff in the Registrar's Office.

Bettenson retired in 1976 and the following year the university conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law for which he had refused his name to go forward while in office. In retirement he cultivated his garden with some success, remained an active rambler and environmentalist, and kept in close touch with the university, working on its archives and making his historical services readily available. In 1987 he published The University of Newcastle upon Tyne After 1970 - a Selective View, covering the years 1970-86.

An achievement of which Bettenson was especially proud was the production, also in 1987, of "1937: The Great Divide", an account of the events leading up to the reconstitution of Durham University and the formation of King's College in 1937. He regarded this account (published in the Durham University Journal) as a genuine footnote, however small, to the study of history.

Ernest Marsdon Bettenson, university administrator: born Bolton, Lancashire 29 March 1911; Assistant Registrar, Durham University 1947-52, Registrar 1952-61; Registrar and Secretary, King's College, Durham 1961-63; Registrar, Newcastle University 1963-76 (Emeritus); married 1946 Jean Smith; died Newcastle upon Tyne 3 May 1997.