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Obituary: James Walsh - Full Obituary

Dr James (Jim) Walsh
Photo Simon Warner

The University is very sad to record the death of Dr James (Jim) Walsh, Emeritus Registrar, who died on 30 January 2008.

Born in Lancashire in 1930, James Walsh was a pupil at Nelson Grammar School before coming to Leeds in 1948 to read English. His student days were distinguished ones. Graduating with first class honours in 1951, he was awarded a research scholarship and completed a thesis on Edmund Burke for his MA degree, which he received in 1953. Strong political convictions were evident during his time as a student: he was sometimes to be found on the steps of the Union, exhorting his fellows to purchase copies of the Daily Worker. Two years of National Service in the RAF followed, after which he elected, with considerable prescience, to enter university administration in 1955, at the University of Manchester. Under the hugely influential figure of Vincent Knowles, he was one of a small cadre of very able youthful administrators there who went on to make a considerable mark on their chosen profession. Acute, intellectually gifted and thoroughly professional, and with a keen sense of wit and fun, Jim was popular with and respected by academic and administrative colleagues alike. Successive promotions inevitably came his way, and in 1969 he was appointed Assistant Registrar.

It was with an already impressive pedigree, therefore, that Jim Walsh re-crossed the Pennines to Leeds in 1971 to take up appointment as Deputy Registrar. His remit included responsibility for all the main elements of student rites of passage: admissions, examinations and graduation ceremonies, and much else besides. When Dr James MacGregor retired in 1979, James Walsh succeeded him as only the fifth Registrar in the history of the University. He was to remain in office for the next thirteen years, serving in the process three Vice-Chancellors and one Acting Vice-Chancellor. To say that it was not an easy time would be an understatement. At the outset, he had to contend with the knowledge that Edward Boyle, the then Vice-Chancellor, was gravely ill. (Lord Boyle was to die in September 1981.) External forces were also to buffet the institution, including in particular contracting support from the public purse but also a previously unparalleled degree of questioning of the mission and competence of universities in general; as Jim himself put it in an article written in the late 1980s, their purpose, attitudes, relevance, organisation, diligence and discipline all came under the spotlight. Cuts and efficiency gains, staff losses, managerial processes, restructuring, access and expansion were just some of the knotty issues that dominated the Universitys agenda during that period. Jim was one of the key figures within the institution whose skills, stamina and steadfastness ensured that the University surmounted the many obstacles placed in its path and proceeded in good heart and good shape. He offered wise counsel (characterised, as his good friend Brian Hogan once put it, by that indefinable, but well understood, quality called common sense); remained composed in the face of adversity; and always sought an accommodation based on rock-like integrity, reason and conciliation.

One of the recurrent motifs of Jims career was a willingness and ability to look beyond the boundaries of his own institution. A conspicuous example of this was the leading part he took in setting up an assembly of university administrators to discuss matters of common interest and concern within the profession: he was a founder member, in 1961, of the Meeting of University Academic Administrative Staff (MUAAS), its first Secretary and later, with Geoff Lockwood, Joint Secretary. Held in London in September 1961, the first meeting was attended by just ten administrators but, by the end of the decade, the success of MUAAS which later metamorphosed into the Conference, and subsequently the Association, of University Administrators could be gauged from its total membership of eight hundred and fifty spread over eighty-five institutions. The editor of the collection of essays produced to mark the Silver Jubilee of MUAAS/CUA in 1986 wrote in his introduction that, if nothing else, the volume served as a tribute to the belief of James Walsh and Geoff Lockwood in the future, and to their vision of the growth and importance of university administration. Jim was also a staunch advocate of formal training and development for administrators. He served on the Administrative Training Committee of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and, in conjunction with Ken Kitchen, was responsible, in 1969, for initiating and devising what became the Northern Universities Administrative Training Programme.

A firm believer in the international dimension of universities, Jim had a host of contacts at other institutions throughout the world. More formally, he was appointed in 1975 to serve as an adviser to the Bangladesh Universities Commission and in the following year was awarded a Commonwealth Travelling Fellowship to give seminars in India, Australia and the USA. He visited a number of other countries at the invitation of the British Council, often as part of a delegation of specialists in higher education.

One of the outstanding University Registrars of his generation, James Walsh retired from his post in September 1992. On his retirement, the title of Emeritus Registrar was conferred upon him and in the following year he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the University. The citation for his honorary degree paid tribute to his incisive analytical powers, acute political antennae, firmness of purpose and coolness under fire. It added that, perhaps even more than for these, Jim would be remembered for his generosity of spirit. The many individuals who worked with him would unhesitatingly attest to that quality. Humane, fair and always approachable, slow to chide and quick to bless, his acts of kindness small and large towards his staff were legion.

In retirement, Jim continued to pursue his research and writings on the broader educational themes in which he had retained an absorbing interest throughout his career. Scrupulously eschewing any interference in the work of his successors, he nonetheless continued to visit the University regularly on a social basis, his gregarious good nature and companionability, allied to a seemingly inexhaustible stock of amusing anecdotes, ensuring that he was always accorded the warmest of welcomes. He is sadly missed.

Jim derived much contentment and strength from his marriage to Vanessa, from his daughters, Amelia and Nerissa, and from his four grandsons.

The funeral service and committal will take place at St Peters Church, Thorner, Leeds 14, on Friday, 8th February 2008, at 2.45 pm, and will be followed by private cremation. There are to be family flowers only. Donations may be made for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and a plate will be available in the church. Refreshments will be available in the Church Hall after the service and committal. A memorial service is planned for later in the year.

The flag will be flown at half-mast on the Parkinson Building on Friday in Jims memory.

Published: 5 February 2008