Bruce Williams, 1919-2010

October 7, 2010

The vice-chancellor who steered the University of Sydney through the era of student radicalism has died.

Bruce Williams, the son of a clergyman, was born on 10 January 1919 in Victoria, Australia, moved around a good deal as a child and then secured a scholarship to the University of Melbourne.

He completed a degree in economics in 1939 and became an assistant lecturer - and then, in 1945, a lecturer - at the University of Adelaide. The following year, he embarked on his first and most extended period of work in the UK, when he took up the position of senior lecturer in economics at Queen's University Belfast.

This was followed by a professorship at the University College of North Staffordshire (which would later become Keele University) from 1950 to 1959, and one at the University of Manchester from 1959 to 1967. The latter post also included a period seconded to the Ministry of Technology and the Prices and Incomes Board as an economic adviser.

After two decades carving out a prestigious career as an academic economist in the UK, Sir Bruce returned to his native Australia to serve as vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney from 1967 to 1981.

It was a period of considerable unrest. Yet by the time Sir Bruce left, said David Fraser, emeritus professor of animal science at Sydney, "the university was on a sounder financial footing, its academic reputation was considerably enhanced and the earlier protests and upheavals were things of the past".

"He showed considerable bravery and astute and gentle use of his authority in calming the emotional conflicts over student protests about the Vietnam War and academic disputes in the disciplines of political economy and philosophy. His formidable knowledge, analytical skills and astonishing memory for detail contributed greatly to academic and cultural life in Australia and the UK over much of the 20th century," Professor Fraser said.

Knighted in 1980 for his services to education and government, Sir Bruce also took on wider public roles as chair of the New South Wales State Cancer Council and president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (now Universities Australia). He then spent the period 1981-87 in England as a visiting professor at Imperial College London and as the founding director of the Technical Change Centre in London.

Returning to Australia, Sir Bruce served as chair of the senate's finance committee at Sydney, and was also able to pursue his deep cultural interests as director of the Sydney International Piano Competition.

He died on 9 August 2010 and is survived by his five daughters, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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