Professor Sir Eric Thomas, 1953-2023
22 November 2023
Professor Sir Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Bristol from 2001 to 2015, died in November 2023 at the age of 70. This is a tribute by Barry Taylor, a colleague and friend.
Eric Thomas had that elusive quality one might call ‘presence’ – the kind that draws people in like moths to a flame. Perhaps it had something to do with his commanding height, upright posture and impeccable clothes and grooming. Or it may have been that gale-force laugh, which was often audible from the other side of the building. Most likely it was the sheer energy and intelligence he radiated, matched by his unforced charm, openness and zest for people and life.
Working for Eric was both daunting and a delight: daunting because of his high expectations, low boredom threshold and lightning, razor-sharp mind; a delight because he was so ready to engage with, listen to, trust and support those around him.
Taking charge at Bristol in September 2001 cannot have been easy for Eric. Under his predecessor, Sir John Kingman, the University had cemented its longstanding reputation as an academic powerhouse. But it was clear that the institution would have to change swiftly and extensively in order to thrive in the new, very different century. Eric’s job was to lead the response to local, national and international challenges and to grasp opportunities or create them, all the while nurturing the University’s best attributes and traditions and staying true to its values.
He had to set out a bold and ambitious vision that was in tune with the collective aspirations of staff and students. He had to establish a stellar leadership team with the talent and commitment to turn that vision from a written statement into a lived reality, especially the core parts relating to the academic endeavour and the student experience. He had to know, via the University’s Registrar, that the professional services – personnel, student support, finance, property, research support, IT and all the rest – were fit and ready to underpin the whole enterprise. He had to ensure that the workplace culture was such that staff felt encouraged, respected and able to fly. And he had to engage with a host of people in the wider world, from city leaders to government ministers and from fellow captains of higher education to alumni around the globe.
Eric had solid experience to fall back on. He had distinguished himself as Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, then Head of the School of Medicine and ultimately Dean of Medicine, Health and Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton. He also had the academic credibility that came with the publication of more than 150 scientific papers on infertility and endometriosis.
He had grit and determination, too. Arguably this had something to do with his roots. Born in Hartlepool in 1953, the grandson of a miner, Eric was a true Geordie. This was evident in everything from certain turns of phrase to his fierce football loyalties. As seems only fitting, his alma mater was the University of Newcastle, from which he graduated in medicine in 1976.
That was also the year he married Narell, a nurse whom he had met in Newcastle’s students’ union bar. She, along with their children Rachel and David, was the rock and support that enabled Eric to rise with such vigour and joy to the challenges he faced at Bristol.
He and his teams racked up a phenomenal list of achievements over his 14 years at the helm. Research, always one of Bristol’s great strengths, became much better resourced and more ambitious, cross-disciplinary, international and impactful. The commercial exploitation of innovation was given a fresh impetus. Teaching received a new lease of life, informed by research and standing with it as an equal priority. The student experience was progressively upgraded in multiple ways. The relentless focus on academic excellence entailed major expansion and unprecedented investment in people, buildings and facilities. This required an imaginative financial strategy, complemented by philanthropic fundraising on a hitherto unknown scale – the Centenary Campaign, for example, sailed past its £100 million target (with the Thomas household as a major donor).
Given all this and much besides, it is no surprise that Eric was courted by the powers-that-be in higher education. He served as Chair of the Worldwide Universities Network (2003-2007) and as President of Universities UK (2011-2013). He chaired the task force set up by the Department for Education and Skills on increasing voluntary giving to higher education, which produced a ground-breaking document known as The Thomas Report. In 2013 Eric was appointed the government’s UK International Education Champion and he co-chaired the International Education Council alongside the Universities and Science Minister. He was Chair of CASE Europe (the Council for Advancement and Support of Education) from 2007 to 2014 and also served on the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission.
Eric’s many services to higher education were recognised by the award of a knighthood in the 2013 Queen's Birthday Honours.
He also fulfilled numerous local roles, from board member of the South West Regional Development Agency to Deputy Lieutenant of the City and County of Bristol.
If ever things got a bit much or he felt his natural ebullience faltering, Eric would go and talk to some academics about their latest research or, better still, to some students. Without fail, they reinvigorated him and reminded him what it was all for.
The occasional crisis was inevitable. One such began in late 2002 when the University experienced a ferocious backlash against its efforts to attract applicants from a broader pool of talent, recognising that students with exceptional ability, motivation and potential can be found in all parts of society, including disadvantaged ones. Hysterical and ill-informed attacks came thick and fast. The story – alleging ‘social engineering’ and ‘discrimination’ by ‘tinpot Trotskyists’ – became the UK’s biggest media issue with the possible exception of the build-up to the second Iraq war. The controversy went international and drew in all manner of people, including the prime minister. But Eric did not buckle. Once he had satisfied himself afresh that Bristol was doing the right thing, he argued his corner with eloquence and rigour. Ultimately the University’s reputation as a principled and far-sighted institution was enhanced.
Unsurprisingly, Eric had a busy retirement. He was much in demand in the UK and overseas as a higher education consultant and adviser and he juggled a portfolio of charity trustee roles. To his complete delight, he also gained three grandchildren.
Eric was diagnosed with lung cancer in July 2023. When it became known that the disease had spread, a WhatsApp group set up by his family was inundated by messages and pictures from well-wishers. And when he died in November, numerous people used that platform to express their sorrow and admiration. Here are some of the things they said about him:
‘…a good man who made such a difference to the world’
‘…an amazing mentor, a generous host and great fun to be around’
‘…such a wonderful person, who lived his life to the full’
‘…an utterly brilliant man’
‘…simply spectacular in all he did’
‘…a towering, vigorous force of nature’
‘…one of life’s greatest characters’
‘…the life and soul of any gathering, but also such a kind man’
‘…a very special person and a massive influence for so many of us’
‘…a truly wonderful man, one of the best I ever met, or am likely to’
‘…such an inspiration and a breath of fresh air’
‘…simply the best mate you could ever have.’
Eric’s very last visit to the world beyond his hospital room was to Maggie’s Southampton, a centre providing support to people and their families as they deal with cancer. There is something inevitable about the fact that he had been chair of the centre’s fundraising committee. Doing his best for others, while having as much fun as possible along the way, was the abiding theme of Eric’s life.
All staff are welcome to join our University of Bristol community in celebrating the remarkable life of Professor Sir Eric Thomas. Together with Sir Eric’s family, we will celebrate his life and share memories and reflections at a Memorial Service and reception on Tuesday 30 April at 2.30pm in the Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building. Please RSVP here: https://forms.office.com/e/PrP2abbz7E. For any questions please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.