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Sir (Eric) Brian Smith


It is with great sadness that the University has learned of the sudden death of Sir Brian Smith, former Vice-Chancellor.

Educated at Wirral Grammar School for Boys, Sir Brian read chemistry at Liverpool, where he also took his PhD in Physical Chemistry. That was followed by a postdoc fellowship at Berkeley. On his return to the UK he was appointed as a lecturer at Oxford, and a Foundation Fellow at St. Catherine’s College, where he was Master between 1988 and 1993.  He was knighted in 1999 for his work in establishing university links with industry and commerce. His research, which he maintained while Vice-Chancellor, was on the physiological effects of gases: practical applications included the administration of general anaesthetics and underwater exploration.

In 1993 he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University. He inherited from his predecessor, Sir Aubrey Trotman-Dickenson, an institution that was financially and organisationally sound after the merger of University College and the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology. The University was ready for take-off, and Brian’s energy and enthusiasm came at the right time. Institutions are fortunate if they have the right person as their chief executive at the right time, and Brian was just that. He brought with him some of the spirit of being the Master of a college, hosting numerous evenings for colleagues at the official residence, and more formal dinners with distinguished guests. He also brought his enthusiasm for the theatre. At St. Catherine’s he established the Cameron Mackintosh Chair of Contemporary Theatre and at Cardiff he created a series of sparkling guest lectures by distinguished playwrights .

Brian described his role as Vice-Chancellor as most closely resembling that of a football manager (he was an ardent Liverpool supporter), recruiting the best and nurturing talent. Under Sir Brian’s leadership the University committed itself to a collective drive towards research excellence. If academic leadership means anything, Brian provided it in abundance, helping the University to find a common purpose. The efforts bore fruit, in developing a research-led culture that was in turn reflected in greatly enhanced performance in Research Assessment Exercises, leading to Cardiff’s membership of the Russell Group.

Portraits of Brian hang in St. Catherine’s and Cardiff. His friends expressed surprise that he was able to sit still long enough for the portraits to be completed. His restless energy  conveyed itself to colleagues in the University at all levels . His passion for alpine climbing was perhaps a fitting metaphor for his achievements at Oxford and Cardiff. The University sends its deepest sympathy to Regina, Lady Smith, and members of their family. He will be greatly missed.

Professor Paul Atkinson
Emeritus Professor, School of Social Sciences

Funeral details can be obtained from:

Sunita Farnham

I realise now that I was the first person in Cardiff University to meet Brian Smith. One of my duties was to show potential Vice-Chancellor (or Principal as the role was known in 1992) candidates round the university before they committed to the formal selection processes and this often involved meeting at times when there were relatively few people around. All the dialogue up to that point had been through our search consultants (aka Headhunters)

So it was on a bright sunny Saturday morning that I first met Brian outside main building and in that moment it was clear that this was a candidate unlike any other – this observation was not based on any great personnel professional insight, it was due to the fact that the candidate was accompanied by their spouse, something that had never happened before (or since in my experience).
Later, in a remote hotel on the outskirts of the city, I was required to shepherd candidates in and out of their interviews and to generally assist with the admin of the selection event, which meant that I was privileged to hear Brian setting out what would be his approach to realising the potential of the recently merged institution.

Bringing those ideas into reality became the focus of everybody’s effort over the following years – nurturing the potential of the academic staff, enhancing the research profile through recruitment, and instilling a ‘can-do’ attitude to whatever challenges came up.

We devised an early retirement scheme which enabled academic staff who had served their time to retire with unexpected benefits then to enable Heads of Department to fill the vacancies through high-profile targeted recruitment campaigns, along with a drive to ensure that there was a coherent focus on excellence throughout recruitment, probation and promotion.

The outstanding formula-based departmental funding model created by the previous Principal was enhanced with research committee monies to enable very targeted recruitment and it wasn’t long before we were using ‘big splash’ job advertising which helped to tell the story that Cardiff was going places. Brian introduced the ‘Distinguished Research Professor’ title and used his own networks and those of the Heads of Department to identify names for our headhunters to pursue likely candidates. Mike O’Hara the geologist was the first to arrive this way.  All those candidates had to go through formal selection committees, including one where one of the interview panel remarked to the candidate, economist Patrick Minford, “This is the first time, and probably the only one, where I have been involved in interviewing someone whose name was the answer to a question on last night’s University Challenge!”

Internal reorganisation  created ‘The Cardiff School’ of Biosciences, Journalism, and, after some nimble backroom work from Paul Atkinson, Social Sciences, so that the dynamic combination which research focus, restructuring and recruitment enabled was enough to attract Martin Evans, Huw Beynon, Terry Threadgold and many others. At that time, certain ancient universities in the UK continued to operate a ‘cap’ to set the upper limit on professorial salaries (at £42,000 as I recall) which, when coupled with the final salary formula for USS pensions, meant the attraction to Cardiff could be personal as well as in terms of research ‘dowry’ funding.

The theory which Brian had set out to his selection committee was along the lines that ‘salting’ the academic staff with very high profile established ‘stars’ would have a catalytic effect on those around them, and that the post-merger management systems in Cardiff gave more flexibility than existed in other places to bring about transformation.

His impact on the cultural life seemed to flow from his own outgoing, open and friendly personality – eating regularly in the staff dining area (I recall one occasion where the conversation was about a request I had received from the army to use the Park Place Tower for a charity abseil …. Brian was very keen to do it himself, but fortunately the request was turned down on safety grounds!)

  • playing tennis regularly with a group of staff
  • open lectures from interesting people, such as Alan Ayckbourne
  • the Principal’s house at Radyr Chain had been used by the Trotman-Dickinsens to hold soirees for invited groups of staff. Brian and Regina took this to new levels to the extent that one of us who frequently helped on the hosting later called these ‘the stroganoff years’. That house was also used for visitors to stay overnight.

This shift to real collegiality was illustrated following the early retirement of the Registrar, Professor Bruton and the promotion of Vanessa Cunningham to the new role of Head of Administration. While Professor Bruton’s move led directly to the acquisition of the Glamorgan building, Mrs.Cunningham’s charming style was entirely consistent with Brian’s. The elevation of Professor Hadyn Ellis, who had taken the lead on the research committee initiatives, to a new role of Deputy Principal was similarly culturally consistent.

Brian Smith put Cardiff ahead of the curve through the 1990s. The focus on RAE submissions was gruelling for those involved but paid dividends.

Many of the people who later flourished and took on their own leadership roles joined at that time under one or another of these initiatives. There were times when there were so many selection events taking place on the same day that we ran out of places to hold them.

And the facts speak for themselves – he joined when Cardiff was ranked 45th in UK research league tables and left when we were at No.5.

Membership of the Russell Group, which continues to mark Cardiff as a special place, was entirely due to Brian Smith. While this recognition was underpinned by the successes of all the activities he led, it only came about after great personal effort to convince those who needed to be convinced and there could be no-one better than Brian Smith to have carried that off.

Alastair McDougall
Director of Personnel
1990 - 2004