Lord Stewart Sutherland
When Stewart Sutherland heard that the Learned Society was minded to offer him an Honorary Fellowship, he expressed unfeigned pleasure. His acceptance was in turn warmly welcomed by the Fellowship. The part Wales played in his multi-faceted life was small but to him not insignificant. It was in 1965, as an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at what was then the University College of North Wales that he started on his illustrious academic career. He gave informal advice, on occasion, to various universities in Wales and was fitting that the University of Wales awarded him an Honorary Doctorate (as many other universities did). Recognition by the Learned Society, in a sense, brought full circle to his academic life.
Born in Aberdeenshire, his father was a drapery salesman and his mother a department store worker. He attended Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen and then proceeded to take First Class Honours in Philosophy at the city’s university. This was followed by a focus on the Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge where he was strongly influenced by Donald McKinnon – much later jointly editing a volume in his honour. He remained at Bangor for three years before moving to the new University of Stirling where he established a Department of Religious Studies. The next phase of his career took him to King’s College, University of London, initially as Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion. Never wishing to be called a theologian, his exploration of religion, ethics and philosophy can be best seen in God, Jesus and Belief: The Legacy of Theism (1984). It was already apparent, however, that his intellectual capacity was matched by organizational efficiency and administrative ability. He became Vice-Principal of the college in 1981 and Principal in 1985. Five years later he became Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, charged with the responsibility of sustaining a continuing sense of common purpose amongst its member institutions at a time when that was not always apparent.
Awareness of his ability spread beyond the academic world. To the surprise of some, in 1992 he accepted the post of Chief Inspector of Schools, that is to say Head of Ofsted, the new body which in England did away with the system of HMIs. It was a venerable system but, expressed in the jargon then flowing freely, one deemed by government to be no longer fit for purpose. It fell to Sutherland to steer a new system of school inspection into existence. His undoubted academic status helped him navigate his way through many political and professional difficulties. He did not claim that the replacement he oversaw was without flaws. In any case, he did not suppose that Ofsted would occupy the rest of his life.
In 1994 he was brought back to Scotland as Principal of the University of Edinburgh where, with quiet but determined authority, he did what he could to bring fresh vigour to its academic life and international standing. Needless to say, the political mood in Scotland was not that of his youth and a returning native is not always welcomed uncritically. He had been elected to the Fellowship of the British Academy in 1992 but it was not until 1995 that the Royal Society of Edinburgh followed suit. Sutherland held to his course in the university with humour and reason. In 2002, he became that Society’s President on his retirement from the university. In that capacity he gave advice to this writer at a time when the idea of a comparable body was being mooted in Wales. When, subsequently, the Learned Society of Wales did come into existence, the relationship with the Royal Society of Edinburgh has been a source of encouragement and support.
Sutherland was knighted in 1995 and created a Life Peer in 2001 (sitting in the House of Lords as a crossbencher). That might be thought simply to reflect his standing in, and contribution to, many fields of education. His service, however, went wider. The longer term care of older people, a constantly growing number, is universally recognized across all political parties to be a major problem in our society: how should it be provided and funded? In 1997 Sutherland accepted the chairmanship of a Royal Commission appointed to investigate the problem and point the way forward. In this role his skill as a chairman blended with a personal commitment. No government, however, seems able to discover a consensual solution and implement it. Sutherland’s commission, though diligent and penetrating, was not itself in full internal agreement and, in the event, the Report gathered dust, though in the House of Lords and elsewhere, Sutherland continued to press his case. His own death, from cancer, came too early. Latterly, the Scottish government did implement some of the commission’s proposals. Social questions of this kind continued to engage him to the end (for example, recently chairing a House of Lords committee investigating affordable child care).
Such public activity, however, should not lead to the conclusion that his interest in and commitment to higher education faded away. He was Provost of Gresham’s College from 2002 to 2008 and continued to lecture and write, though his pattern of activities meant that the volume of his writing (though not its quality) was not as great as it might have been. On another front, he was the only man, it is believed, to have served on the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the equivalent body for Hong Kong. His reputation in these matters was global.
Many words have been written, and will continue to be written, about the relationship between academic excellence and the needs of society. If one wants a case-study of commitment and achievement across boundaries one could not do better than study and admire the life of Stewart Sutherland.
Prepared by Professor Keith Robbins DLitt FRSE FRHistS FLSW