Francis Campbell, who served as a policy adviser at Downing Street and as the Prime Minister’s private secretary from 1999 to 2003, will join St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, at the end of April.
The former British diplomat, who is currently head of the policy unit and director of innovation at UK Trade and Investment, will work alongside interim principal Arthur Naylor until the end of academic year during a handover period.
His appointment follows the sudden departure of St Mary’s former principal, Bible scholar Philip Esler, in January last year over what he called “friction” over the merger of its theology department into a new arts and humanities school.
Professor Esler attracted particular criticism over the removal by security guards of the theology school head Anthony Towey, who had openly criticised the merger – a move that prompted student protests, as well as the resignation of historian Eamon Duffy as an honorary fellow.
Professor Esler cited “negative attention in the Catholic press” as one of the reasons for his departure.
Despite an illustrious career in diplomacy and government, which includes a secondment to the European Commission to work at the United Nations in New York, the St Mary’s job will be Mr Campbell’s first post in higher education.
However, the Queen’s University Belfast graduate, who also holds postgraduate qualifications from University of Leuven in Belgium, and the University of Pennsylvania, has impeccable Catholic credentials; he served as ambassador to the Vatican from 2005 to 2011 and accompanied Pope Benedict on his visit to the UK in 2011.
“Francis, who has a deep commitment to Catholic life and to the common good, brings much to this post,” said Bishop Richard Moth, who chairs St Mary’s chair of governors.
“His experience in the public sphere, which includes service overseas, will enable him to foster St Mary’s place on the world stage,” he added.
Northern Ireland-born Mr Campbell, who is a parishioner of Westminster Cathedral, said it was “an immense privilege and honour to be entrusted with this task”.
“I look forward to working with the students, staff, governors and alumni to build on the immensely rich legacy handed on to us by those who served St Mary’s throughout its 164-year history.”