Posted on 20/09/2012
It is with great sadness that Royal Holloway, University of London announces the death of Professor Dorothy Wedderburn in the early hours of this morning (20 September).
Dorothy Wedderburn was the Principal of Bedford College 1981-1985 and the first Principal of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College between 1985-1990.
She was a distinguished social scientist who made major contributions to scholarship and policy in her field. She was also an academic leader, the main architect behind the merger of Bedford and Royal Holloway Colleges, and the person who created the sound foundations for Royal Holloway’s current national and international standing.
Born in 1925, Professor Wedderburn was educated at Walthamstow High Schools for Girls and Girton College, Cambridge. After a brief period as a civil servant in the Board of Trade, she returned to Cambridge where from 1950-1965 she was a Research Officer in the Department of Applied Economics. From there she went to the Department of Economic and Social Studies at Imperial College, London, where she became a Professor and the Director of its Industrial Sociology Unit (1973-81).
Professor Wedderburn’s research was in the mainstream of traditional leftist British social science of the 1960s and 1970s. It was notable for its strong empirical base and its use of structuralist and even Marxist ideas. The titles of some of her works indicate her concerns: White Collar Redundancy (1964), The Aged in the Welfare State (with P. Townshend 1965 and Poverty, Inequality and Class Structure (1974). By addressing such large themes and by doing so in clear and cogent language Professor Wedderburn aimed to influence not just academic debate but government policy.
This latter concern drew her to act in the wider public sphere. She wrote for the New Left Review and the Socialist Register. She accepted positions on the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth, on a government committee on the pay and conditions of nurses, and on the Council of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service.
Arguably Professor Wedderburn ’s greatest achievement was the founding of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College. The process began when she became Principal of Bedford College, London, in 1981. Bedford was in difficult circumstances: its grant from the University of London Court had been drastically cut; it was known that the Court was seeking to rationalise academic provision across the university, particularly in science; the Crown leases on Bedford’s Regent’s Park properties were coming to an end.
Professor Wedderburn quickly understood that merger with another institution was the only way forward. After unsuccessful talks with King’s, she opened negotiations with Royal Holloway and, with the college’s Principal, Dr Roy Miller, completed negotiations to merge on the Royal Holloway campus in 1985. This was one of the more successful university mergers of the recent era. One outcome was that Royal Holloway and Bedford New College was designated one of the five science sites of the University of London. This was followed by a major building programme on the Royal Holloway campus.
Professor Wedderburn was appointed the first Principal of the new College. Government policies made the late 1980s difficult times for universities; they were particularly difficult for the new College. Finance, as ever, lay at the heart of the matter. Professor Wedderburn took difficult decisions. She decided to close down the Chemistry Department, for which the substantial Bourne building had been constructed in the previous decade because it was too expensive a subject.
She decided to reduce staff across all departments; as an expert in white-collar redundancy she knew better than most the impact this would have on individual lives. She agreed that the College should sell three of the most valuable paintings in the Royal Holloway collection. Although the deed was finally done in her successor’s time, this necessary but most unpopular decision was made under her aegis.
Her capacity to make and implement such decisions meant that the new College both survived the 1980s and was in a position to strengthen its academic position throughout the 1990s so that in the 2002 Research Assessment Exercise it was rated 9th in the country by the Financial Times and was one of only four universities in the country in which the research in all science departments were rated as having international standing.
After her retirement as Principal, Professor Wedderburn was not idle. She was a Senior Research Fellow at Imperial College. She served on a number of public bodies, among them the Chelsea and Kensington District Health Authority and the Medical Manpower Advisory Committee of the Department of Health. She also served for many years on the board of the Anglo-German Foundation.
In the 1980s she had been a member of the Court of the University of London and from 1986-88 Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Continuing Education. She now brought her experience of university governance to the governing bodies of City University, Goldsmiths College, London Guildhall and Loughborough Universities. Most appropriately she was Honorary President of the Fawcett Society 1986-2002. In 1998-2000 she was Chair of the Committee of Enquiry into Women in Prison; her last book-length publication was Justice for Women (2000). She received honorary degrees and fellowships from 10 universities, including Cambridge, her alma mater.
None of this could have been achieved without singular personal qualities. In his citation for her Honorary Fellowship of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, the late Lord Allen of Abbeydale, who chaired the College Council from the merger period into the early 1990s, declared that it was important that her achievement was that of a person of ‘great humanity and understanding of her fellow mortals, with no trace of arrogance and with an ability to laugh at herself – and also an ability to enjoy some of the day-to-day activities, such as cooking, which do not invariably go with high academic achievement.’
Professor Wedderburn had great courage and energy. She was courteous, but could also be very blunt. She inspired fierce loyalty amongst all who worked closely with her. Royal Holloway was most fortunate to benefit from her leadership.
There will be a memorial service at the College in the Spring at a date to be announced.