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The Society for Research into Higher Education

David Watson 1949-2015 : A tribute

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By Paul Temple

In his first few days working at the Institute of Education in London, David Watson, who died on 8 February this year after a short illness, was drafted in to chair the exam board for an MA programme about which he knew nothing, and which involved some tricky procedural matters. Afterwards, I overheard the experienced course administrator for that programme say to our own course administrator, ‘Your David Watson – he’s awfully good, isn’t he?’ David would have relished the compliment, coming from one of the ordinary members of staff who keep universities running, and would almost certainly have valued it at least as much as the many tributes paid to him in the days immediately after his death by grand figures in the higher education world.

This was because David appreciated that leadership involved understanding the details of how organisations work, the nuts and bolts that hold them together (he questioned the idea of ‘leadership’ in the abstract), and that it also involved understanding and empathising with the needs of the people who do the detail, not just senior colleagues involved in large strategic matters.

As with Tolstoy and happy families, the few exceptional leaders I’ve worked for during my career have had much in common: while the poor leaders have been poor in different ways. (At this point, David would have said, ‘Let’s make a list…’.) The empathy shown by exceptional leaders like David means that subordinates see themselves as working for – or rather, on behalf of – an individual, not an abstraction like a department or an institution. So their everyday work becomes a mission, not merely to do what they have been told, but to (and I’m sorry, but it’s hard to avoid the cliché) exceed expectations. Above all, people want to avoid disappointing him or her, not because of any disciplinary consequences, but because of how they themselves will feel: the leader has caused the desire to achieve to be internalised. Certainly, all the people I know who worked with David were annoyed with themselves when something didn’t work out – they felt they had let him down.

I have been particularly touched by messages from those he taught at the Institute of Education, who knew at the time that they were privileged to be in the presence of an inspiring teacher. As Alison Kennell, now Registrar and Secretary at York St John University has recently said, ‘His wisdom fulfilled our search for meaning and value in what we do’. Out of his many achievements, David remarked that his father, a UCL graduate who became a teacher, would have been particularly pleased to know that his son had become a teacher at the University of London.

In October 1915, the Endurance, the ship taking the explorer Ernest Shackleton and his party to the Antarctic continent, was trapped and then crushed by pack-ice in the Weddell Sea. Shackleton and his men abandoned the sinking ship and made temporary camp on the ice. They were then about 400 nautical miles from the nearest land on the Antarctic continent; nobody knew where they were, and could not anyway have come to their aid. Shackleton gathered his men around him on the ice and, according to the account of the ship’s doctor, ‘without emotion, melodrama or excitement, said, “the ship and stores have gone – so now we’ll go home”’. (And they all did.) I can hear David’s voice saying those words.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, University College London.

On June 3rd 2015, Green Templeton College, where David was Principal, are organising a celebration in Oxford of David’s life and work. SRHE friends and colleagues are welcome to participate. To receive an invitation, please contact Helen Perkins, SRHE Director at hsperkins@srhe.ac.uk by 13th May at the latest.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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