John Archer, 1943-2007

January 17, 2008

In his nine years in charge of Heriot-Watt University, John Archer helped to raise student numbers by a third, instigated a dramatic restructure, and moved the institution out of a long period of financial deficit.

Professor Archer, who died of cancer on 9 December just 18 months after he retired, has been described by former colleagues as a strong leader who could be "challenging at times" but who could also "mesmerise with his contagious enthusiasm".

A Londoner by birth, he gained a BSc in industrial chemistry from City University London and a PhD at Imperial College London before embarking on a career as a petroleum engineer. He returned to Imperial in 1980 to take up a readership in petroleum engineering and was appointed professor six years later. He went on to play an increasingly senior role at Imperial, first as dean, then as pro rector and finally as deputy rector.

As principal of Heriot-Watt from 1997, Professor Archer emphasised the importance of expanding research and the numbers of international and postgraduate students. The university, like many others, faced severe financial pressure at the beginning of the decade and it suffered deficits for several years.

Professor Archer restructured the university: he abolished its independent single-discipline departments and set up a smaller number of larger multidisciplinary schools. The result was a return to financial health from 2002 onwards.

He also oversaw two key expansions: a 1997 merger with the Scottish College of Textiles to create the university's Scottish Borders campus in Galashiels, and the formation of a new campus in Dubai in 2005.

Andy Walker, vice-president of the university, recalls a leader who was "challenging at times" but whose real strength was in building consensus. "He was very keen to ensure that what we did would go forward and that we were widely supported," he said.

Raffaella Ocone, a former colleague, remembers the professor walking along Heriot-Watt's corridors, stopping to talk to colleagues and students. "Speaking to him never felt like reporting to the boss, but rather like talking to a colleague and friend who could mesmerise with his contagious enthusiasm. My first feeling on meeting him was how good and simple it was to talk to an engineer about engineering. But I soon discovered that it was very good to talk with him about classical music and art, too."

Professor Archer was a keen gardener and was particularly proud of his plot in the walled garden of the principal's residence, Hermiston House.

He is survived by his wife, Lesley, and their son Adam and daughter Louise.

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