Howard Petch, 1925-2018

Former president of University of Victoria remembered

December 13, 2018
howard-petch

A Canadian university president who presided over an era of remarkable institutional expansion has died.

Howard Petch was born in Ontario in 1925 and contracted polio as a child. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, then, shortly after the end of the Second World War, he began a degree in chemistry and physics at McMaster University in Ontario (1949), followed by an MSc (1950). He gained a PhD in physics from the University of British Columbia (1952) but in 1954 found employment back at McMaster. He went on to chair the department of metallurgical engineering (1958-61) and to serve as director of research (1961-63) before becoming principal of Hamilton College (1963-67), an institution affiliated to McMaster.

From McMaster, Professor Petch moved to the University of Waterloo, also in Ontario, as both vice-president (academic) and professor of physics (1967-75). This proved a staging post for his final job as president and vice-chancellor of the University of Victoria, British Columbia, where he remained until he retired and became emeritus in 1990.

In a book to celebrate the institution’s 50th anniversary, Reaching Outward and Upward: The University of Victoria, 1963-2013, historian Ian MacPherson describes Professor Petch as having presided over “a remarkable expansionist phase in UVic’s history”. Student numbers nearly doubled, from 7,400 to 13,000. New professional schools were established in nursing, childcare, social work, business and law, and a Faculty of Engineering was added as well. The campus was transformed by the construction of a new university centre and interfaith chapel as well as buildings dedicated to law, fine arts, and science and engineering.

Having initially opted to stay in student residences on campus, Professor Petch was acutely aware of student concerns. He greatly developed the athletics programme and saw the university win 25 national championships during his presidency while insisting that students’ sporting success must never come at the expense of academic achievement.

Deeply committed to increasing diversity and opening the university up to the world, Professor Petch supported the creation of a First Nations teacher education programme, founded a Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives and helped Victoria to become one of the first Canadian universities to establish formal relations with a Chinese university. He was also a strong supporter of the cause of sexual equality. Early in his tenure as president, only 52 of the 417 full-time faculty were women; by the time he left in 1990, close to half the new tenure-track academics were female.

Professor Petch died on 26 November and is survived by his wife Linda, two sons, a daughter and five grandchildren.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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