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Obituary: Lord (Asa) Briggs, former University of Sussex Vice-Chancellor

Asa Briggs, who died on 15 March at the age of 94, was a key figure in the creation and development of the University of Sussex. An eminent historian (whose main field of interest was the social and cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries), he was one of the University’s ‘founding fathers’ and its second Vice-Chancellor.

In the late 1950s the first Vice-Chancellor, Lord (John) Fulton, set out to find a distinguished scholar to lead his academic team - someone willing to explore new frontiers, and with experience of different universities. Asa Briggs, a professor at Leeds and one of the most influential historians of his day, was Fulton’s choice.

So during what he later described as “the exciting beginnings” of the University in 1961, Professor Briggs became its first Professor of History, the founding Dean of the School of Social Studies and the first Pro-Vice-Chancellor.

A new university

The quintessential polymath, Professor Briggs was eminently qualified to bring into being a new idea for a new university: it was organised into schools of studies, each based on a unifying theme, such as a geographical area or a cluster of related subjects. Professor Briggs coined the phrase “redrawing the map of learning” to describe this innovative, interdisciplinary approach to teaching and research.

Professor Fred Gray, who edited the volume Making the Future, published in 2011 to mark the University’s 50th anniversary, wrote: “Briggs, with wonderful imagination and intense determination, drove forward the making and development of Sussex.” In his essay in The Sussex Opportunity, an earlier book that celebrated the University’s first 25 years, Professor Briggs himself wrote: “We felt a sense of privilege in being allowed to build a new university.”

He played an important part in shaping the curriculum for Sussex history undergraduates (beginning a tradition of the study of working-class history and culture) but, as well as being a university administrator, he also continued to teach.

Colossal intellect

Introducing a lecture by Lord Briggs on campus to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2011, Professor Eileen Yeo, Professor Briggs' first doctoral student at Sussex, said he was already “a semi-mythic figure in 1963 with an international band of students who knew all about his colossal intellect and prodigious work-rate”.

She recalled that what she had most valued was the support he gave to students: “As a supervisor, his comments were invariably stimulating, reflecting his endless curiosity and extraordinary range of interests and insights. But what was as striking was his approachability, his genuine interest in what every person had to say, and his kindness.”

A new Vice-Chancellor

When Lord Fulton left Sussex in 1967 to become Chairman of the British Council, Professor Briggs took over from him as Vice-Chancellor.

He was responsible for encouraging many highly talented academics to the newly formed Sussex at an important stage in its development, attracted by the University’s bold approach to learning. These included, among many others, Professors John Maynard Smith, David Daiches, Roy Macleod, Douglas Brewer, Marcus Cunliffe and Roger Blin-Stoyle.

Professor Briggs was also instrumental in bringing the renowned Mass Observation Archive (which specialises in material about everyday life in Britain) to the University of Sussex and opening it up as a resource for historical research. In 1975 he formally opened the Archive to the public and he continued as its patron until his death.

The Asa Briggs Internship, based at Sussex’s purpose-built archive centre, The Keep, now enables an intern to study archival and heritage management in a practical environment, and to develop their research skills. The founding donors for the internship scheme were Sussex alumnus Professor Robert Malcolmson – who was taught by Professor Briggs - and his wife Patricia.

The research centre, SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit), also owes its existence in large part to Professor Briggs, who had a strong commitment to establishing research units at the University and who persuaded Professor Chris Freeman to come to Sussex as SPRU’s founding director.

Because of the relatively small numbers of staff during his time at Sussex, Professor Briggs knew most of them personally, and many were sorry to see him go when he left in 1976 to become Provost of Worcester College, Oxford.

In the same year he was made a Life Peer and later became Chancellor of the Open University.

Lewes to East Lothian

From 1991, after retiring as Provost of Worcester College, Lord Briggs and his wife Susan lived happily between Lewes in East Sussex and Scotland after buying a house in East Lothian. They continued to play an active part in the life of all of the academic institutions that Lord Briggs had been so keenly involved with, including the University of Sussex.

An 80th birthday celebration on campus for Lord Briggs in 2001 was hosted by the late Lord (Richard) Attenborough, who spoke warmly of his old friend’s many achievements. The two had met in 1968 while the young film-maker was making Oh! What a Lovely War in Brighton and the surrounding areas and he had persuaded the Vice-Chancellor to lend him Sussex students as extras.

Then in 2008 Lord Briggs unveiled a plaque commemorating the renaming in his honour of two lecture theatres, which were the heart of the original humanities buildings created by architect Sir Basil Spence. He said that, while he had strong connections with other leading higher education institutions in the UK, such as Oxford and Cambridge, and Chicago overseas, his heart was “forever with Sussex”.

And at the lecture and dinner to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2011, Lord Briggs spoke of his “great joy” in his role in helping to establish Sussex – a role that, he said, had given him more pleasure intellectually than all his other experience to date.

The event also saw the re-launch of the Asa Briggs Fund, originally created for his 80th birthday. To celebrate the role played by Lord Briggs in shaping historical scholarship at Sussex, this fund currently supports an Asa Briggs PhD Scholarship for a researcher with an interest in modern British history – and another will be available in 2017.

In 2012 Lord Briggs was back on campus again, for the unveiling of a portrait of Sussex’s seven current and former vice-chancellors. A gift to the University from the artist Stephen Farthing RA, the work was painted as part of the University’s 50th anniversary celebrations. During a commemoration dinner at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, the University also presented Lord Briggs with a 50th anniversary gold medal.

50th anniversary

The University’s current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Michael Farthing, describes Lord Briggs as “an extraordinary man” who had had a “stellar career”. He says: “He had a huge breadth in his life and he contributed to an enormous number of different universities, different ideas to his discipline of history, and on a much wider scale to higher education in general. He was a visionary and a dear friend; I shall miss him terribly.”

And an endowment pledged recently by Sussex alumnus Dr Tom Kemnitz means that the name of Asa Briggs will live on at Sussex in the form of a new PhD scholarship.

Dr Kemnitz, a doctoral student at Sussex in the 1960s, asked for the scholarships to be offered in Lord Briggs’ name for two reasons. “First, he was my doctoral supervisor - a relationship with lifetime benefits for me, and second and more important because he was the progenitor of the extraordinary intellectual dynamism that was Sussex in its first quarter century. It gives me great pleasure to know that there will be students far into the future who will owe their Sussex experience to Asa Briggs.”

Posted on behalf of: University of Sussex
Last updated: Thursday, 17 March 2016


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