Obituary: Alexander Monteith Currie, university administrator

Born: 2 May, 1926, in Stevenston, Ayrshire. Died: 24 August, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 88.

Alex Currie: Distinguished administrator who was Secretary of Edinburgh University for 15 years

Alex Currie spent 41 years in university administration, becoming widely respected in his field, culminating in 15 years as Secretary to Edinburgh University up to 1993. He was a colleague, friend, and mentor to generations of administrators, not only in Scotland and the rest of the UK, but in many countries throughout world, particularly the Commonwealth, Europe, Scandinavia, and the United States.

He was part of the post-war drive to increase student numbers and from broader sectors of society. In the early part of his career, he was in the vanguard of developing a centralised and streamlined university admissions process.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

These days, this transparent system – now UCAS – where students choose universities by completing a simple form, is taken for granted. However in earlier decades, each university jealously guarded its processes, producing a complex and bewildering landscape which discouraged many young people and tended to foster elitism. Countless thousands owe a small debt of gratitude to him for championing this important and hard-won democratizing innovation.

In the 1970s, Alex was at the sharp end of a type of radical student politics which is unrecognisable today, where sit-ins, protests, and direct action were staple fare. During one acrimonious dispute, in which his offices were overrun and occupied, protesters daubed “Get your peace pipe out Currie” in large letters on the side of a prominent flyover in Sheffield.

Though greatly troubled by events, he met the challenge with tact, diplomacy, and his trademark good humour, and what passed, in those days, for good student/staff relations were restored.

The registrar and secretarial departments in which he made his career had great power and influence, with responsibility for all aspects of academic administration, extending to finance and buildings.

Shortly after starting at Edinburgh University, he received an OBE for services to UK higher education and, close to retirement, he was awarded the rare distinction of The Royal Order of the Polar Star (first class), by the King of Sweden, Carl Gustaf XVI, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to cooperation between Swedish and UK universities.

Alexander Monteith Currie was born in Stevenston, Ayrshire in 1926, the only child of Alexander and Mary Currie (née Murray). His father was a chemist at the ICI Nobel explosives plant in Ardeer, North Ayrshire, and in 1940 moved to work at the Cooke’s Explosives factory in Penryhndeudraeth, Wales. Alex attended Portmadoc Grammar School and had only been a student two weeks at Bangor University before being called up to the Navy in 1942.

Trained as a coder, he served in HMS Boxer and HMS King George V. The war ended before he saw action and he spent the latter stages of his service in Malta. On being demobilised in 1946, he resumed his studies, obtaining a BA in 1948 followed by a BLitt at St Catherine’s College, Oxford with a thesis on the Victorian Scottish poet John Davidson. He started his career in 1952 at Manchester University, then a powerhouse of progressive administrative thinking and a breeding ground for many future leading university administrators.

He married Pamela in 1957 and was appointed academic secretary of Liverpool University in 1962. Three years later, he became registrar and secretary of Sheffield University: aged 39, the youngest registrar in the UK.

He forged a formidable working partnership with Vice Chancellor Sir Hugh Robson, who subsequently became Principal at Edinburgh University. After 13 years at Sheffield, Alex was appointed Secretary to Edinburgh University, expecting to re-establish his effective collaboration with Robson. However, this was denied by Sir Hugh’s untimely death, making his early years at Edinburgh particularly difficult. He had to contend with a university beset with malaise and low morale.

It is acknowledged he left a much happier and healthier place than he found, and greatly improved trust between town and gown, such that many regard his tenure as representing something of a golden age.

Alex remained active in the university and civic world after retirement, maintaining links with ex-colleagues and counterparts and the Association of University Administrators. He was a Rotary Club member for many years and president of the Edinburgh Club in 1990.

He inherited Scottish Protestant values, and could be quite fierce, disliking any impropriety or lack of probity. He could also be generous, kind, and gentle, and anyone who sought his advice would find a sympathetic and helpful ear.

Alex had a lifelong love of the arts and was a proud citizen of a city which could support such an immense flowering of culture as the Edinburgh Festival, which he supported from its earliest days.

He had an interest in amateur dramatics and appeared in several productions in the Staff Dramatic Society of the University of Sheffield. At a time when deference was more prominent, many were surprised to see a senior university officer treading the boards.

Alex was a proud Scot whose love of the West of Scotland developed in later life into an equal affection for Edinburgh. He assiduously supported Scottish endeavour and enjoyed its success, be it on the sporting field or in any other walk of life.

Always at home at a social gathering, he and his wife Pamela, extroverts both, were a fixture at countless university, civic, cultural, and private events, throughout their married life. He was an accomplished after-dinner speaker, much in demand at prestigious Burns Nights. He was Honorary President of the Edinburgh University Rugby club, attending their annual dinner shortly before his death, aged 88.

He had a rare ability to engage with people from different social backgrounds, being equally comfortable conversing with royalty – in the form, say, of a university chancellor, as with the most humble or junior.

His natural warmth, rich sense of humour, and proven ability to solve innumerable problems in a way which generally seemed to benefit everyone, attracted great admiration, loyalty, and lasting affection among his family, colleagues, and friends.

Alex is survived by Pamela, his wife for 57 years, and their sons Alastair and Duncan.