University pays tribute to Deputy Principal

Thursday 22 June 2006

The University yesterday paid tribute to Deputy Principal David Corner with an honorary degree. David, who has worked for the University since 1975, was made a Doctor of Letters alongside golfer Charlie Sifford (Doctor of Laws) and Professor of Physics, Theodor Hansch (Doctor of Science). The laureation address (below) was given by Principal Dr Brian Lang.


Chancellor – It is my pleasure to introduce, for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Mr David Corner.

David Corner was born in Birmingham. He went to school there, was a county chess player, and sprinted for his county as well. He began his academic career in Oxford as a mediaeval historian and was a Fellow of Magdalen College. He has produced a book and many well-regarded papers on historiography.

David Corner came to St Andrews in 1975 and became noted for his lecturing style which was said to be “informal¿. He never wore a tie. He owned one, described as “a rather garish pink and blue thing” which was responsible for three appointments in Mediaeval History because it was frequently loaned around for interviews. Also, David tended not to stand behind a lectern but sit on the edge of a desk. Consequently, his Head of School told him off because his style while effective was, “not commensurate with the dignity of a university lecturer”.

David Corner is very neatly turned out today. He has had his hair cut and his beard trimmed but he is at his most magnificent when with his flowing silver locks he looks more like Father Christmas, or Moses, or God. And he has the characteristics of all of those.

David Corner is best known in St Andrews as an extremely successful manager, negotiator, trouble- shooter, academic entrepreneur and committee operator whose skills are matchless. He came into all of this, though, by an unorthodox route. The Principal of the University in the 1980s, my predecessor Struther Arnott, frequently faced the St Andrews branch of the Association of University Teachers, and particularly their President, one David Corner. David was so effective that Principal Arnott simply co-opted him into management, making him Director of Personnel Services and told an especially summoned meeting of the academic staff that he had turned a poacher into a gamekeeper. Indeed, Principal Arnott described Mr Corner as playing Thomas Cromwell to his Henry VIII.

David Corner rose. He became an Assistant Principal and between 1992 and 2003 was Secretary and Registrar. In 2003 I made him Deputy Principal, mostly on the basis that as a relatively new Principal, if I was known to have David poking me in the back and watching my every step, then the University would be more likely to assume it was in reasonably capable hands. More significant, though, is that during that period David was responsible for the academic schools in the University and so he is a very rare creature in having run both the academic side of St Andrews and the administration that underpins our research and teaching activities.

In those roles David has achieved an astonishing amount. The bones are easily described. It was David Corner’s negotiating skills that meant the University had ultimate control over, and now owns, the Gateway Building on the edge of town which houses the School of Management. He has sat on numerous inter university committees, most notably the joint Scottish universities Committee which formulates the negotiating stance towards the Funding Council and Scottish Ministers. He has played a leading role in our negotiations over the so-called pooling arrangements, in which we have joined research forces with other Scottish universities. This has sometimes meant fraught relationships with other Scottish universities, with whom it is important that we remain on good terms. He is brokering exciting and innovative departures for the School of Management in the Creative Industries and has brought in partnerships with top US universities. We should be able to announce soon a very exciting and unusual set of arrangements for teaching medicine at St Andrews. He has been negotiating new relationships with some South African universities. Most difficult of all, in my view, David has spent the past year and half ensuring that the highly complex details of the new terms and conditions for all of our staff – under the so called Framework Agreement – are introduced not just to serve the University, but so the staff concerned are confident with the new arrangements, so that trust remains between staff and management.

He has been the author of many strategic plans and policy documents. We have come to recognise the literary style. The opening sentence at least a paragraph long. Qualifying and subordinate clauses strewn through sentences and commas sprinkled seemingly, but on careful reading not, at random.

But as I say, those are the bones of David’s St Andrews career. There is the vital matter of style. You will have already observed that he is a man who I know will not be offended if I refer to his underplaying of sartorial priority. His intellect, though, is unfailingly the sharpest. From the disorderly he produces order and certainty. From the complex, he conjures the straightforward. From a potentially fraught confrontation he will achieve common ground and good humour.

Another strand – this once rather good athlete has become a spectator, but in that distinct David Corner style. He is a passionate supporter, I believe fanatical in the literal sense of the word, of Dundee United Football Club. Away matches are included, no matter how distant. And football is, of course, a mediaeval sport.

At this stage I need to introduce that other vital component in the Corner story, his wife Carol. When Carol retired from her career in teaching, David’s gift to her was a Dundee United season ticket. Carol has been an essential buttress to David’s career, despite being traipsed around a further Corner passion, mediaeval places of worship. As she said, “the first 5000 churches were fine, but after that.+ ¿¿

David could never do without Carol. Apart from any other consideration, he is, she says, “domestically useless¿. Plumbers, doesn’t understand them; shelves, can’t make them stay up; vets – the Corners currently have three dogs and a cat – “No, Mr Corner, your guinea pig does not have a tumour – it’s a Fox’s glacier mint entangled in its fur.”

David Corner has served this University to the utmost of his energy, his inventiveness, his time, and his good humour. He has, I know, put his domestic popularity at substantial risk. But asked by me or other colleagues to undertake the most complex, time-consuming tasks, he has readily grasped them. He has done all of this – in that particular way.

He has been a first rate colleague. Chancellor, in recognition of David Corner’s massive contribution to the health, well being and success of the University of St Andrews, I invite you to bestow upon him the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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