Folklore Lord Swann

Lord Swann was a distinguished member of the University of York, Chancellor for many years. The following tribute was carried by the University Review 1989-90:

Lord Swann

Lord Michael Swann FRS, Chancellor of the University since 1979, died on 22 September 1990.

Michael Swann was born on 1 March 1920. He was an exhibitioner at Winchester where he was taught chemistry by Lord James, our first vice-chancellor. he went up to his father'[s college, Gonville & Caius, and after the war was elected to a Fellowship there in 1946. Sic years later he was appointed to the Chair of Natural History at Edinburgh University and in 1962 became a Fellow of the Royal Society. His main interest as a research biologist was in cell physiology and in particular fertilisation, mitosis and cell division - nearly all the work being done on the eggs of sea-urchins. After a spell as Dean of the Faculty of Science, he served an eight-year term as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh. This was a time of rapid expansion and though the appointment of another scientist caused open resentment in some quarters, Michael rapidly gained the confidence of the University as a whole because of the firm, judicious and courteous way in which he conducted policy-making internally and the obviously beneficial influence his powerful presence had upon the University's reputation in the outside world. It was, however, also a time of serious student troubles and of difficulties over the Rectorship of the University which made meetings of the Court particularly wearisome. Unfortunately Michael allowed himself to become unduly emotionally involved in these affairs, many of which were deeply offensive to one of his sensitive nature, and he yearned for change.

The offer of the Chairmanship of the MMC came just at the right time. From all accounts he was very successful there. his big, genial presence fitted in well with the atmosphere that permeated the Corporation. He enjoyed the job immensely; and probably his most important legacy for the future was the protection he established for the BBC against outside influences that threatened its independence.

During the 'eighties he undertook many public duties of which perhaps the best known and certainly most difficult was his assumption, at a point of disorder and deadlock, of the Chairmanship of the Committee on the Education of Children from Ethnic Minorities. In the House of Lords he sat on the cross-benches and worked tirelessly in support of higher education. It was a hard, tedious slog, calling for considerable research and long sittings; and the result was the alteration of a few clauses that the Government felt it unwise to overturn. In one sense it was a poor reward, but it was precious for all that.

He was an excellent Chancellor. his presence on Degree Day added much to the dignity of the occasion. He never sought to interfere in policy matters but gave excellent advice when asked and always wanted to be kept up to date with what was happening. Just now and again he was able to put a word for us in high places when the need seemed pressing.

I knew him well for over twenty years. It was fun to be with him, for he was a great talker, a man of wide interests and a lover of gossip blessed with a wicked sense of humour. I find it hard to look at his photograph and realise that in future I will only be able to enjoy the memory of all that. The University, too, is the poorer for his early, wholly unexpected death.

Berrick Saul

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