Norman Gibson, 1931-2014

A towering figure in Northern Irish higher education, notable for his “courage, integrity and independence of mind”, has died

August 7, 2014

Norman Gibson was born in Lisnaskea, County Fermanagh, on 13 December 1931 and studied at Queen’s University Belfast, graduating with a first in economics in 1953. He went on to a PhD at Queen’s (1959), where he was appointed assistant lecturer in 1956 and – after a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship at the University of Chicago (1958-59) – became lecturer in 1959.

Moving to England in 1962 as lecturer (and then senior lecturer) in economics at the University of Manchester, Professor Gibson returned to Northern Ireland as founding professor of economics at the New University of Ulster in 1968. He proved effective in developing the syllabus but became unhappy when the “direct rule” government announced plans to merge the NUU with Ulster Polytechnic to create what in 1984 became the University of Ulster.

Although Professor Gibson regarded this as an unacceptable assault upon the NUU’s autonomy, he joined forces with Derek Birley, rector of the polytechnic, to develop their vision of an institution catering to far more students from the region. As pro vice-chancellor for academic planning, he expanded numbers at the Magee campus from 200 to more than 2,000 and doubled numbers at Coleraine to more than 4,000. He also spearheaded a research programme that saw Ulster become one of only 20 UK universities to have a 5*-rated area in the 1996 research assessment exercise.

After initially focusing on banking and finance, Professor Gibson gradually shifted his research interests towards work that could benefit the local community. He organised a 1974 conference on the economics of various political alternatives for ending violence in Northern Ireland; and he carried out a study of the bread industry and another – with John Spencer, professor emeritus of economics at Queen’s University Belfast – on the agriculture livestock sector. They also edited Economic Activity in Ireland (1977), a pioneering attempt to examine the interdependence of the economies of the two parts of Ireland.

Upon retirement from Ulster in 1996, Professor Gibson remained active, writing articles on topics such as university governance. Gerry McKenna, former vice-chancellor at the university, described him as “an unwavering advocate of a pluralist Ireland” who would be “remembered for his courage, integrity and independence of mind”.

Professor Gibson died from complications following a brain haemorrhage on 8 July and is survived by his wife Faith, a daughter, two sons and four grandchildren.

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