Honorary Degrees: Howard Newby (1967-1988): Oration

Sir Howard Newby

Oration given on 13 July 2000

Chancellor, the Senate of the University has resolved that the degree of Doctor of the University be conferred upon Sir Howard Newby.

Howard Newby was born and brought up in Derby, in what used to be called a “respectable working-class” family: his father was a skilled worker at the Rolls Royce factory nearby.  Although since 1967, when he came to this university as a student, he has spent almost the whole of the past thirty-three years either in the south of England or abroad, he has never lost touch with the environment and culture that nurtured him in his childhood and youth.  Two anecdotes may serve to illustrate this point.

In one of his many distinguished publications, it was necessary to anonymise the identities of people that he had interviewed as part of his fieldwork.  One wonders whether, when the book appeared, his interviewees realised that they had been given the names of the then Derby County football team!

Then, more recently, after he had become Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton, he was invited to write the notes for the Southampton versus Derby game at the Dell.  They were entitled “Derby County, Life, the Universe and Everything”!

A sociologist by discipline and training, Howard Newby, in purely academic terms, is known pre-eminently as a rural sociologist.  One of his best and best-known academic works is The Deferential Worker, a study of farm workers in Suffolk, the genesis of which was his undergraduate project, later to mature into his doctoral thesis.  But even in his first year of postgraduate study, he had written, together with his supervisor, Colin Bell (today Vice-Chancellor of Bradford University), a book entitled Community Studies.

A salient feature of Howard Newby’s work as a rural sociologist was that he eschewed the somewhat nostalgic, romanticised approach to the countryside that had prevailed for so long, and shifted the focus onto rural Britain as a component of British life generally, onto placing it in the context of the economic, technological, social and political milieu of which it was a part.  Perhaps most important of all at that time, he shifted the discipline towards the study of power in local communities, and if today it is taken for granted that rural sociology will deal inter alia with labour relations in agriculture, agribusiness and environmental issues, then, in large part, it is due to him.

Much of Howard Newby’s work, while firmly rooted in the discipline of sociology is situated geographically in our region.  As well as The Deferential Worker, his Property, Paternalism and Power, co-authored with Colin Bell (the title was chosen not simply because of its alliterative appeal), dealt with capitalist farmers in East Anglia, probably the most intensively farmed part of Britain.  But Howard Newby’s work was not constrained by localism: together with several Essex colleagues, he co-authored Social Class in Modern Britain; while later, together with another Essex colleague, he published a best-selling undergraduate textbook, The Problem of Sociology.

A book written for a wider, popular audience was Green and Pleasant Land? (there is a question mark at the end of the title); but if one were to go to the University library today one would find that title, in multiple copies, on restricted three-hour loan, many times re-bound and much thumbed by generations of students.  Like so much of his work, it has stood the test of time.

Howard Newby moved on from Essex in 1988.  In the twenty-one years he was with us he was successively undergraduate, postgraduate research student, lecturer, senior lecturer and reader, before being appointed professor of sociology in 1983.  From 1983 to 1988, he was simultaneously Director of the Essex-based Data Archive, a national data resource for social scientists.  While in that office, he oriented the work of the archive towards research activity and it was during his time at the Archive that the Doomsday project was undertaken to celebrate the 900th anniversary of that famous pioneering example of data collection.

Sociology students graduating at this ceremony are fortunate in that they will receive a memoir by a friend and former colleague of Howard Newby detailing his achievements and recounting personal reminiscences.  Unfortunately, time and occasion preclude the Public Orator from going into such lengthy detail.  However, there is life after Essex and, in Howard Newby’s case, it assumed the form of a six-year tenure at a critical time as Director and Chief Executive of the ESRC, the Economic and Social Research Council, and, since, 1994, as Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton.

The ESRC was in a parlous state in the late 1980s.  Its name had been changed from SSRC, Social Science Research Council (the word “science” was omitted deliberately), a mark of the then Prime Minster’s hostility towards sociology and social science research (she believed, you will remember, that there was no such thing as society), and her Secretary of State would even have gone so far as to abolish the Council entirely.  The budget had been cut by one-third and the Council’s administrative officers removed from London to Swindon (not that the new director minded that too much – as an ardent railways enthusiast from Derby he was quite happy to find himself in another great railway centre, Swindon).  It was then, as he later put it, that Howard Newby began “patrolling that border between, on the one hand, the world of academia, and, on the other, the worlds of Whitehall and Westminster.

It was a daunting task that required leadership rather than management (although he provided that, too).  It is to be hoped that one day Howard Newby will commit to the public realm his recollections and assessment of his time at the ESRC.  In the meantime, suffice to say that he earned the respect of politicians and senior civil servants, significantly improved social-science graduate training in this country, and did a great deal to increase recognition of the social sciences that had hitherto been so scant.

Howard Newby’s move to Southampton was not a transition from the national to the local, for in addition to his “in-house” responsibilities he is also chair of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principles, a body that has grown enormously in recent years and one that has the difficult task of, on the one hand, defending the university sector’s interests vis-à-vis government, while at the same time acting, as it were, as the employers’ organisation for academia.  Small wonder, in view of all this, that he was awarded a knighthood in last month’s Honours List to add to the CBE that he already had.

The University is delighted to welcome back Howard Newby to his alma mater, together with his wife, Janet, also an alumnus of this institution – it is not just Derby County and railways that are listed as his recreations in Who’s Who – mentioned first and foremost is family life.

Professionally, Howard Newby has had three lives: here at Essex, where he rose to be a leading rural sociologist; at the ESRC; and now as a university vice chancellor.  He may not emulate the proverbial cat, but one suspects that there are more lives yet to come.


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