Students Staff

31 July 2012

Sir Albert Sloman 1921-2012

Sir Albert Sloman UPDATED:

Sir Albert, who was married with three daughters, died on 28 July, aged 91. A private funeral was held on 15 August, with a celebration of Sir Albert’s life to be held at the Church of St James the Great, East Hill, Colchester, at 4pm on Friday 7 September.

Sir Albert Sloman was the founding and longest serving Vice Chancellor of the University of Essex, which to this day bears the distinctive imprint of his clear-sighted vision of a university with a rigorous academic mission for modern times.

Sir Albert was born and educated in Cornwall, before attending Wadham College, Oxford in 1939. He had intended to apply for PPE, but switched to Spanish on the offer of a scholarship. After two years’ study he fought with the RAF as a night-fighter pilot, returned to Oxford in 1945 to begin a doctorate, but after a year took up an Instructorship in Spanish at the University of Berkeley in California. There followed appointments in Trinity College Dublin and Liverpool, where he held the Chair in Spanish from 1953 to 1962. In his last year at Liverpool he was Dean of the Faculty of Arts with responsibilities for the humanities and social sciences in a rapidly expanding civic university.

In May 1960 the University Grants Committee announced its decision to establish a new university in the county of Essex and in June 1962 it appointed from a long list of names Albert Sloman as the first Vice Chancellor. It was a bold choice – he was only 41, with limited experience of academic leadership – but an imaginative one.

Most British universities gradually evolve from their origins as local further education or extension colleges. The University of Essex would be different. Albert Sloman took full advantage of the opportunity to create an entirely new university, unencumbered by established systems and conventions, on the green-field site of Wivenhoe Park. He broke with what he regarded as the stultifying structures of the redbrick universities of the time and adopted the outlook and practices of the leading American universities, such as Berkeley, which he greatly admired.

He described his conception of a new type of university in the BBC’s 1963 Reith Lectures, ‘The Making of a University’. It would be international in its horizons, standards, faculty and students; inter-disciplinary in its curriculum; democratic in spirit; but above all committed to research and scholarship of the highest order. To build – and build rapidly - strong, internationally recognised departments, the University’s subject coverage would be highly selective but deep. Departments would be headed by leading academics on a rotating basis so that they could maintain their research. This enabled him to recruit brilliant young academics who shared his ideas to establish and lead the new departments, including the economist Richard Lipsey, the sociologist Peter Townsend, the political scientist Jean Blondel and the literary critic, Donald Davie. Departments would offer postgraduate as well as undergraduate degrees from the start, in particular taught Masters degrees, which were almost unknown at the time. Every academic would be expected to prioritise research, and to shape their teaching by it and would be guaranteed research sabbaticals. They were strongly encouraged to spend them in the leading universities abroad and to attract their new colleagues back as visiting fellows.

The curriculum would break out of subject silos. All undergraduates would sample a broad range of courses cutting across the science/arts divide in their first year before specialising. A notable innovation in the humanities and social sciences was the principle that students should study countries other than Great Britain: each department had specialists in the United States, the Soviet Union and, on his initiative as a Hispanist, Latin America - a neglected continent in British universities, but one in which Essex built up a formidable reputation.

Central to his idea of a university, too, was the creation of a genuine academic community, free from the hierarchy and stuffiness of the established institutions. There was to be no Senior Common Room or Junior Common Room, student accommodation would be mixed (considered daring before the Sixties began to ‘swing’), and the university campus would consist of a compact set of inter connected buildings clustered around four squares, surrounded by six student residential towers. The relaxed informality of relations between students, graduates and teachers was a notable feature of the campus culture.

Many of these ideas are taken for granted today, but in the 1960s they excited intellectually adventurous students and young academics as fresh and liberating and attracted them to the University.

Much of Albert Sloman’s vision came to fruition at Essex and has survived, despite serious setbacks in the early years. In 1966 the UGC, antagonised by the University’s commitment to research, savagely cut the planned expansion of numbers. Two years later student disruption of visiting speakers – including Enoch Powell – ushered in six years of sporadic political protest on the campus. It was no worse than in many other British campuses at the time, but the progressive idealism of the Reith Lectures made Essex a sitting target for the press. An essentially shy man, unswervingly liberal in his principles, and temperamentally ill-prepared for dealing with student disorder, he was personally scarred by calls for the closure of the university from the populist right, and by criticism of his handling of the protests from the romantic left.

The depiction of the Essex campus as a hotbed of revolutionary subversion seriously damaged the University’s reputation. Applications for undergraduate places rapidly dwindled and took three decades to recover. The local Essex community, which had generously contributed to its initial endowment, stepped back in embarrassment. The planned growth in student numbers was continuously scaled back, leaving little scope for new academic initiatives. But Sir Albert took the long view and patiently repaired the University’s reputation by promoting research excellence, expanding graduate numbers, and – in response to the collapse of UK undergraduate numbers – attracting students from overseas, where the University’s high standing remained intact.

Sir Albert was actively involved in higher education at national and international levels, with a particular interest in international scholarships and cross-national university cooperation. A committed European – his wife Marie, was from Cognac in France, where they had a house - he chaired the Conference of European Rectors and Vice Chancellors from 1969 to 1974. He also presided over the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the representative body for UK universities, in 1981-83, a particularly testing time marked by the large cuts brought in by the Thatcher administration.

Sir Albert Sloman retired as Vice Chancellor in 1987 after twenty five years, an unusually long period of office. The previous year the University surprised the academic world, and perhaps itself, by an exceptionally strong performance in the first Research Assessment Exercise, which it repeated in all the national research assessment exercises that have followed. Earlier this year, the Times Higher Education ranked Essex 20th among the world’s universities established in the past 50 years, a vindication of the principles on which he founded the University on his appointment half a century ago.

Professor Sir Ivor Crewe, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex 1995-2007, and Lecturer and Professor in Government at Essex for more than 35 years

...more news releases