OBITUARY: Sir Geoffrey Warnock

John Torrance
Sunday 15 October 1995 23:02

As Principal of Hertford College from 1971 to 1988 Geoffrey Warnock presided over a crucial stage in the transformation of what was once one of smallest, poorest, and least regarded of Oxford men's colleges into a mixed, middle- sized college with sound finances, new buildings, an expanding fellowship, a progressive admissions policy and good academic results, writes John Torrance.

Although some of the measures that benefited Hertford were in place before his arrival, their successful fruition owned much to his careful, clear- sighted and good-humoured government. Already known for his administrative efficiency while Senior Tutor at Magdalen, he now showed rare qualities of chairmanship and leadership which led to his choice as Vice-Chancellor of the university in 1981.

He steered Oxford's Hebdomadal Council, as he had the college, with an imperturbable authority that minimised debate by the unfailing fairness and reasonableness with which it was exercised. His clarity of presentation, shrewd judgement, modest dignity and friendliness were widely appreciated, both in and outside the university. The least pompous of men, given to almost self- caricaturing understatement in matters of personal conviction, his conduct of business nevertheless left no one in doubt of his awareness that questions of expediency often conceal deeper issues involving the values of which universities are guardians. His sense of right and wrong, when roused, was robust and unerring.

His four years in office coincided with the first round of cuts in university funding, heralding the campaign by successive Conservative governments to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of higher education. Although Oxford's official response to the cuts was measured, in unofficial pronouncements Geoffrey Warnock made no secret of the sombre view he took of the future of British universities if it were to depend wholly on such considerations.

He returned to this theme briefly in his last speech, delivered at the recent opening of Warnock House, Hertford's new student residence on the Isis near Folly Bridge. The speech finished on a valedictory note, and when he died 12 days later it was hard not to believe that, with characteristic firmness and courtesy, he had held off the advance of an unrelenting illness just long enough not to disappoint his family and the many friends, colleagues and well-wishers gathered for the occasion.

Geoffrey James Warnock, philosopher: born Leeds 16 August 1923; Fellow by Examination, Magdalen College, Oxford 1949, Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy 1953-71 (Emeritus Fellow 1972-80, Honorary Fellow 1980-95); Fellow and Tutor, Brasenose College, Oxford 1950-53; Principal, Hertford College, Oxford 1971-88 (Honorary Fellow 1988-95); Vice-Chancellor, Oxford University 1981-85; Kt 1986; married 1949 Mary Wilson (created 1985 Baroness Warnock; two sons, three daughters); died Axford, Wiltshire 8 October 1995.

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