Ron Johnston, vice chancellor of Essex University, is to step down after three years in the post.
Professor Johnston, 54, will leave at the end of this academic year. He said he had decided to return to his career as a researcher.
"Interesting and challenging though being a vice chancellor is, I have decided that it is not what I want to do with the rest of my career," he said.
One of Britain's leading geographers, he had managed to maintain some research at Essex and belongs to a team which presented two papers on electoral geography at the Political Studies Association conference last week.
His years at Essex were marked by the negotiation of some financial difficulties. But there is a balanced budget for the next academic year and news of a likely surplus for 1994/95.
Professor Johnston ran an open style of management. When difficulties surfaced two years ago his reaction was to write to every member of staff and run an extensive consultation exercise. He is committed to the public service rather than the commercial model of higher education, and a vigorous critic of government funding policy.
Professor Johnston is currently on sick leave following a knee operation. The university will appoint an acting vice chancellor while it seeks a permanent replacement. The current pro vice chancellors are political scientist Ivor Crewe, sociologists Mike Harloe and Joan Busfield and linguist Mark Atkinson. Professor Crewe, a well-established elections analyst for the BBC, is the senior in terms of service. The permanent appointment will involve two chairs of the university council - Sir Terence Beckett, now in the chair, and John Waine, Bishop of Chelmsford, who takes over on August 1.