Sir Richard Sykes was days away from accepting the job of provost of University College London in 1999, it emerged this week. Now, he would be offered the position under proposals to merge UCL with Imperial College, London.
Sir Derek Roberts, the interim provost of UCL, who was also provost from 1989 to 1999, told The THES : "When I retired four years ago, he was the first choice and he came within a couple of days of accepting it."
The merger plan astounded the higher education world this week. The merged institution would have some ,000 students, 3,000 academic staff and 3,000 research staff. Its combined income would be about £880 million a year.
Five years ago, Sir Derek raised the possibility of a merger with Lord Oxburgh, then rector of Imperial. When Sir Richard approached him with the suggestion a few weeks ago, they had a meeting of minds.
The colleges have ten weeks to decide whether to merge. A group of ten people, comprising the head of each institution plus his deputies, is meeting every week to flesh out the proposals. At 10am on December 19, the two colleges' councils will hold separate meetings to decide whether to proceed with the merger.
If they decide to go ahead, it would operate as a merged institution with a single head, but two sets of books, from October 2003. The new university would be completed in 2004 and the final legal merger - which would require an act of parliament - would take place the following year.
Both institutions are keen to stress that the merger is not inevitable. Sir Richard said: "The plan is to have three months looking at the proposals. If, having consulted widely, we get good support, then we would make the decision to merge.
"Not everybody will be supportive. If there were very strong opposition, then we would have to think seriously about it."
Sir Richard and Sir Derek said they wanted to build a "5* institution", a reference to the highest grade in the research assessment exercise. At present, 75 per cent of staff at Imperial work in a 5* department, corresponding to 874 staff. At UCL, the figure is 33 per cent, some 576 people. Both colleges submitted the same proportion of staff to the 2001 RAE.
The two colleges overlap in 14 areas of research. Imperial trounced UCL in eight of them and matched it in the other six.
Imperial issued a statement on behalf of the two colleges in which it says that similar departments would almost certainly be merged but adds that the "emphasis of this exercise is to grow academic excellence, hence we are not considering reduction in overall scope".
The statement continues: "Excellence in all aspects of our pursuits would be the key driver for a merger. Cost efficiencies are not a driver of this initiative."
The colleges do not expect there to be any compulsory redundancies as a result of any merger but do not rule out voluntary redundancy or early retirement.
Imperial had formed links with the London School of Economics. Including the LSE in the mix would balance the offering - Imperial is science-based while UCL offers science and the arts.
But Anthony Giddens, director of the LSE, said: "My personal response is the LSE is happy as it is. Size can sometimes be an advantage and sometimes not."
There is also the issue of the new name. University College London founded the University of London, which has more than a dozen colleges and institutes. Qualifications gained at the colleges are awarded by the University of London, although Imperial is in the process of getting its own degree-awarding powers. A merged UCL and Imperial would want the University of London name.
Graham Zellick, vice-chancellor of the University of London, said the merger would recreate a centrally run London university, reversing the trend of devolving power to colleges. He added that the difference between successful US universities such as Harvard and a merged London institution was not one of size but of wealth.