Degree Speeches
Summer 2002

Professor Sir Gordon Higginson, DL, FREng

Public Orator, Professor Neil Halliwell, presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Congregation held on the afternoon of Thursday 11 July 2002.

Figuratively speaking, our honorary graduand today is one of the family. He has been here before. For as Vice-Chancellor of Southampton University, he walked in countless academic processions like today’s. He supported his Chancellor on the platform. In his Chancellor’s absence he conferred degrees with such geniality that every graduate he spoke to felt that he or she was the only person in the hall (and I assure you that this is true – from personal experience).

Probably the only ceremonial role he never undertook was playing the organ. Just as well perhaps, for he says the only musical instrument he can play is the gramophone.

He acquired his turntable expertise in Leeds, his hometown, where as an undergraduate he was secretary to one jazz club and founder-member of another. But the academic work was fitted in somewhere, for he went on to become a research student with one of the most eminent academic engineers of his day.

In the fifties he worked for a stint at the Ministry of Supply, where he met and married his wife Marjorie. It is such a pleasure to see her here with him today. In 1953 he became a lecturer at Leeds University and in 1965 was appointed to a Chair in Civil Engineering at Durham where his major research strength was developed in hydrodynamic lubrication and tribology – Sir Gordon is co-author of the standard book in that field. Not satisfied with this, he went on to establish a further international research reputation, this time in the field of bio-engineering.

The Higginsons stayed in Durham for 20 years, living in the nearby mining community of Billy Row. Gordon was proud to be member of the Billy Row Working Men’s Club (annual subscription: two shillings a year) and for a long time afterwards listed it in Who’s Who as one of his clubs. He was allowed to play dominoes for them and he became scorer for the darts team. He wasn’t considered good enough to play darts, you understand, but it was assumed that a Professor of Engineering could add up.

At that time he drove a two-tone Wolseley, painted in tasteful shades of mauve and pink and had an ambition to construct a small suspension bridge in his back garden. Sadly for Billy Row, he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Southampton University before the ambition could be realised.

His time at Southampton was marked by unflagging warmth and humanity. He had a special sympathy for – and understanding of – young people and he has an abiding belief in the importance of grassroots development. He had – and has – what we call “the common touch”. It enables him to find value in everything he encounters and he is not afraid to show the delight this value gives him.

Gordon retired in 1994, after nine hugely successful years at Southampton. Ironic, therefore, that his most conspicuous appearance on the national stage at first brought rejection. He chaired a Committee set up to advise on the reform of the A Level system. Despite gaining widespread approval, the famous Higginson Report was curtly rejected by the Conservative government. We will not speak of what was put in its place. Suffice to say that many of his committee’s proposals are now back in the political arena. He was knighted in 1990.

Gordon’s energy and unfailing kindness has led to many awards and distinctions. The honorary degrees conferred on him by universities up and down the land are testimony to the admiration and affection in which he is held by the academic community. As I said at the beginning, he is one of the family.

Chancellor, I present to you and the University, Gordon Robert Higginson, DL, PhD, FREng for the award of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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