Obituary: Lord Ashby

Eric Ashby, botanist and university administrator, born 24 August 1904, Lecturer Imperial College of Science London 1931-35, Reader in Botany Bristol University 1935-37, Professor of Botany University of Sydney 1938-46, Counsellor and Charge d'Affaires Australian Legation Moscow 1945-46, Harrison Professor of Botany and Director of Botanical Laboratories Manchester University 1946-50, President and Vice-Chancellor Queen's University Belfast 1950-59, Kt 1956, Master of Clare College Cambridge 1959-75 (Life Fellow 1975-92), FRS 1963, Vice-Chancellor Cambridge University 1967-69, Chancellor Queen's University Belfast 1970-83, Chairman Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-73, created 1973 Baron Ashby, married 1931 Helen Farries (two sons), died Cambridge 22 October 1992.

ERIC ASHBY became Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, in 1950 at an important stage in the development of both, writes Sir Peter Froggatt. At 45, Ashby's aptitudes and ambitions stretched far beyond the laboratory and lecture room; while Queen's was poised for expansion in its size and horizons after its relative quiescence and continued provincialism between the wars. It was to prove a fruitful partnership.

Ashby's strengths lay in clear and appropriate strategic objectives and a mastery of the means of procuring them. A high-quality professoriate was crucial in the circumstances of Queen's and Ashby showed great skill in identifying academic winners, not today's, who could hardly have been attracted to remote, unglamorous Ulster, but tomorrow's, on whom he concentrated. An enticement was the academic infrastructure which Ashby developed, even if at the expense of administrative and clerical staff. Few senior staff lacked academic or laboratory ancillaries according to contemporary standards, but many had a daily walk to the typing pool and the Vice-Chancellor's office itself had only one secretary. Ashby's own speeches, articles and reports were handwritten, much to the chagrin of their printers, ostensibly to facilitate his beautifully crafted prose, actually to avoid the Parkinsonian dangers of clerical officer expansion. Scholarly interests and rectitude were encouraged among students as well as staff: of a student body of some 3,500, at least 1,500 attended the Wednesday afternoon public lecture by some academic notable. The academic quality of Queen's was Ashby's greatest legacy.

Within Queen's, Ashby's authority was absolute. He was a formidable debater, lucid thinker, inspiring and humorous speaker, and with great personal charm and wide culture. These were allied to an impressive stature (he was well over 6ft) and imposing patrician looks. By instinct a benevolent authoritarian, he adopted the persona of a participative democrat more suitable to the labyrinthine decision-making processes resulting from a university's constitutional diffusion of power. He carried virtually every measure he supported through a combination of personal esteem and a shrewd regard for the art of obtaining consensus backed by a mastery of procedure if needed. When I became Vice-Chancellor he gave me much advice and a book, Palgrave's The Chairman's Handbook - his own much- thumbed and annotated copy.

He was a skilful exponent of the 'planted' idea, content to wait patiently for it to resurface through the committee systems as someone else's. His talents and imposing authority were carried into the wider national university arena holding, during his time at Queen's, many memberships of national committees, most of which, significantly, he went on to chair. With only one university in Northern Ireland at the time, Ashby embodied higher education in the province and truly bestrode the local scene. His kindness and courtesy were legendary and he was easily available to all levels of staff. His only enemies were those moved by jealousy or envy.

He was fortunate in his times. Queen's was in a period of growth, increasing resources, and campus peace, without challenge, and university autonomy was real and not the fiction it later became. Paternalistic vice-chancellors could still stamp their character on their universities which many, including Ashby, did. There was no stifling national-planning paraphernalia: during his nine years as Vice- Chancellor Ashby wrote two reports for the University Grants Committee; the modern Vice- Chancellor writes at least two per month. Ashby told me that Queen's only once needed extra money. He went to see the Northern Ireland Minister for Education, told him how much he needed, and got it.

Later, as Chancellor (1970-83), he was a mine of good sense and wise counsel and his yearly graduation addresses were oratorical gems and restatements of the great liberal values in scholarship which had ruled and motivated his career. Modern developments pained, even at times outraged him, but with true self-deprecation he attributed his views to the sclerosis of old age, a typically noble but questionable conclusion. Higher education has lost one of its greatest recent figures.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most