Wandering with Warren

Former Provost Dr. Allen Warren on his new book about York’s history

Many York alumni will recall Dr. Allen Warren, Vanbrugh College’s longest-serving Provost. He led the College from 1984 until his retirement in 2008, and his impact on the College  and the wider university community cannot be overstated.

In his time at York, he focused closely on teaching standards and student welfare and contributed greatly to Vanbrugh’s community through the Vanbrugh Weekends project. Vanbrugh’s reputation for music, too, is attributed to Warren.

Since his retirement, Warren has dedicated much of his time to researching the history. This work has culminated in his book, Eric James and the Founding of the University of York, published by the University’s Borthwick Institute for Archives (for release soon).

The book focuses closely on the life and work of Eric James, the University’s founding Vice-Chancellor, and details his ‘contribution to the founding and development of the University in the city’. Though not a comprehensive biography of James, it follows his outstanding school career, to his years studying Chemistry at Queen’s College, Oxford, and then to his work in education at both Winchester College and Manchester Grammar School.

It was there that James began to engage in education politics, and he soon found himself firmly on the national stage.  A fierce supporter of grammar schools and selective education in general, James was a member of a number of governmental bodies focusing on education policy during the course of his life. He continued to campaign in the House of Lords after being made a life peer in 1958.

Two years later, James was appointed as the founding Vice-Chancellor for the new university being founded in York; he was the only nominee from a list of 35 men to be invited to interview. The University itself opened its doors for the first time in 1963, but Warren explains how plans had in fact been underway as early as the 1940s. In 1947 a group made a pitch to establish a university in the city of York, alongside others hoping to develop institutions in Norwich, Brighton, and other cities, but the University Grants Committee (UGC) at the time did not believe there was a need for new universities.

However, as Warren’s book explains in detail, the shifts in the political and economic environment over the next two decades enabled the group to make impressive progress, forming two academic institutes, including the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research (later to become the Borthwick Institute for Archives), and securing land and property for their proposed establishment. By the late 1950s, the UGC were looking to form a number of new universities around the country, so the York group took their chance. Permission was finally granted in 1960, and York became the first of a new wave of universities established in the UK that decade.

Warren outlines the key players in the founding of the University as well as James, including John West-Taylor, John Bowes Morell, and Eric Milner-White – names familiar to most York students, if only from campus buildings. However, his main focus is on the impact of James and his continuing legacy. Warren explains how James wished for York to be the ‘most democratic’ university in the country, but looks in particular at the Vice-Chancellor’s decision to make York a collegiate institution.

On the whole, the new universities being established across the country at this time were designed to break away from the Oxbridge system, which was seen as outdated. James, therefore, perhaps took a slight risk in implementing a college system at his new university, but Warren describes how this decision was an experiment to discover whether the traditional system, for which James had much respect, could be modernised. Although its success in the first decade was questionable, York’s colleges are now firmly ingrained in the University’s identity, with two more due to open by 2020.

Described by one of his students as ‘at heart, a rebel’, James’ efforts led to York’s reputation as a particularly innovative campus from its inception. For example, his background in education led to the introduction of combined course degrees, which would allow students who knew they wanted to pursue a career in education but also wished to explore a particular subject more deeply to study both simultaneously through an English and Education degree for example. The decision to combine both English and foreign-language literature into one department was also unusual but again has remained a core part of the English and Related Literature degree at the University.

James also made a great effort to support students on both a personal level and more widely, outwardly supporting many student protests. Warren mentions one instance when a solicitor was engaged to defend a number of students who were arrested during a march in response to the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972.

Warren writes of James fondly, with affection and great respect. It’s evident that their educational principles regarding university standards align closely, given their shared dedication to community spirit, student welfare, and good teaching. Perhaps the most profound section of the book is Warren’s ‘Reflections’: his personal considerations of what James would think of the University of York as it stands today. He believes there are many features of today’s University that James would appreciate and be proud of, such as the introduction of new disciplines such as History of Art, Law, and Medicine, and, naturally, the York’s continued success and impressive reputation.

Allen Warren

However, he also considers aspects which might not please the founding Vice-Chancellor so much, going so far as to say that James would find ‘several developments…distressing’, noting particularly the ‘lesser priority given to undergraduate teaching’ in favour of individual research. James’ opinion of academic staff as teachers first and foremost is, perhaps, converse to the perceived roles of many university academics today. Warren also mentions the current system of university management, stating that James ‘would regard the general level of vice-chancellors’ pay as offensive’ – particularly in light of the anecdote that James was forced to sell a picture by English artist L.S. Lowry which had been presented to him upon leaving Manchester Grammar School in order to pay for his retirement home.

This perceptive drawing together of past and present is at the very core of Warren’s book. Although in the first instance it appears to be a work simply explaining the founding of the University we all know, it is subtle in its invitation for comment on the principles of both York itself and university management and teaching more widely. Warren’s concise analysis and high regard for James’s work, life, and philosophy asks us not only to look back at our university’s past, but to use that history to look to the future: to innovate and pioneer as York’s students and staff always have.