Obituary: Lord Ashby
Wednesday 28 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.
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