Celebrating 60 years of the University of Exeter

Building our reputation

Our reputation is built on a vision of Higher Education excellence in Exeter and we are indebted to all the staff and students who have worked and studied here. Here are just some of the many people who contributed to our success:


Mary Cavendish

When the University received its Royal Charter in 1955, Mary Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire became its first Chancellor. She was photographed accompanying Her Majesty The Queen at the special ceremony to award the Charter and unveil the foundation stone of The Queen’s Building, in May 1956. The Duchess knew the Queen; she held the position of Mistress of the Robes for 14 years and attended Her Majesty at the Coronation in 1953.

During the Duchess’s time as Chancellor the number of students at the University almost doubled, with ten major buildings completed on the Streatham campus and the creation of halls of residence for around 1,000 students.

The Duchess was the grand-daughter of former Prime Minister and Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. Her brother, the 5th Marquess of Salisbury, generously gifted what were quite probably his grand-father’s graduation robes to the University when his sister became Chancellor. These robes have been worn by all five Chancellors at graduation ceremonies right up until 2014, when they were deemed too fragile and retired from use. The University holds a portrait of the Duchess in her robes by the British painter Ruskin Spear, which was created in 1966. Mary was awarded an honorary degree by the University in 1956 and remained its Chancellor until 1972.

Viscount Amory

Viscount Amory was educated at Eton College and took his degree at Christ Church College, Oxford. He served in the Territorial Army from 1920-45 and was injured in service during World War Two.

In 1932, he became a Devon County Councillor and remained so until 1951. In 1945, at the end of World War Two, he became the MP for Tiverton, Devon. When the Conservatives returned to power under Sir Winston Churchill in 1951, Viscount Amory first became the Minister of Pensions and later joined the Cabinet as the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries. In 1958, he became the Chancellor of the Exchequer under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

When he first retired from UK politics he was appointed as the High Commissioner for the United Kingdom in Canada and took up the position of Chancellor at Exeter in 1972, remaining in the role until his death in 1981. During his time as Chancellor, the University invested in its facilities for students – creating high quality living accommodation and an exceptional learning environment.

Sir Rex Richards

Sir Rex Richards is a distinguished chemist who was knighted for his work surrounding Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). He also received the Davy and Royal Medals from the Royal Society for his research in this area and was at the forefront of work to design and develop new NMR equipment.

Sir Rex attended Colyton Grammar School in East Devon and St John’s College, Oxford. He went on to become a Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford from 1977-81 and was also a Director of The Leverhulme Trust.

He became the Chancellor of Exeter in 1982 at a time when the University was continuing to expand, with the creation of a new library followed by a social and study centre for postgraduate students in 1991.

Sir Rex has a keen interest in the arts; as well as science. He has been a trustee of both the National Gallery and Tate Gallery and was also Chair of the Henry Moore Foundation. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and an Honorary Fellow of the British Academy for Humanities and Social Sciences. 

Lord Alexander

Lord Alexander was a highly successful barrister who went on to become Chair of the Bar Association before moving to a career in the City as Chairman of NatWest bank.

His high profile legal cases included representing the UK Government (under Margaret Thatcher) against the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) trade unions and also in efforts to ban the controversial book Spycatcher. Others included representing the Greater London Council (GLC ) which was under the leadership of Ken Livingstone, and also Jeffrey Archer and Kerry Packer.

The son of petrol station owners, it was Lord Alexander’s preparation and careful attention to detail which earned him a reputation as one of the top barristers of his time.

He left the Bar to become Chairman of the panel on Takeovers and Mergers and from there was approached for the position of Chair of NatWest bank – a role he held for ten years until 1999.

He became Chancellor of Exeter in 1998 and worked with the current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Steve Smith, when he joined the University in 2002.

At the unveiling of a portrait of Lord Alexander in 2010, Professor Sir Steve praised his work as Chancellor: “He was fascinated by the dilemmas and problems of running a university and devoted himself to finding out, in detail, what was going on and, crucially, how staff and students felt about their institution. He served as a sounding board for senior management, and as a passionate advocate for the interests of students.”

Among his other varied interests, Lord Alexander was also the Chair of the human rights and all-party law reform organisation JUSTICE as well as the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Baroness Floella Benjamin

The Chancellor, Baroness Benjamin, is a successful businesswoman, actress, author, broadcaster and singer. She has been a member of the House of Lords for five years and has used her position and influence to highlight the plight of children and their human rights throughout the world. The welfare, care and education of children is a cause she is very passionate about and she led a 20-year campaign to create the role of Minister for Children, which was achieved in 2003. She is also Vice President of the charity Barnardo’s - for whom she ran ten consecutive London Marathons - as well as a patron of many other worthy causes.

Floella became Chancellor in 2006 and has proved very popular with students, thanks to her heartfelt graduation speeches and her own unique way of congratulating new graduates and making them feel special. As the lead singer of a popular band, she also entertains the graduating classes at their celebratory ball.

Born in Trinidad, Floella was one of six children and the family came to settle in London in 1960. Her first aim on leaving school in 1966 was to become Britain’s first ever black woman bank manager but she subsequently changed direction to become a popular actress and children’s TV presenter of iconic programmes such as Playschool and Playaway.

Floella’s broadcasting work has been recognised with a Special Lifetime Achievement BAFTA and an OBE. In 2012, she was presented with the prestigious J.M. Barrie Award, by Action for Children’s Arts, for the lasting contribution she has made and continues to make to children’s lives through her art.


Sir James

Sir James was an eminent chemist, who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of 37. His career started as a lecturer at Sir John Cass Technical College, before a decade spent at the Royal Cancer Research Institute. As well as a skilled scientist, Sir James demonstrated leadership qualities and moved to the University of Glasgow in 1939 to become Regius Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Chemistry Laboratories. ‌

It was a role he held until 1954 when he moved to the opposite end of the country to become Principal of the University College of the South-West. He oversaw its transition to university status the following year, becoming the University of Exeter’s first Vice-Chancellor in the process.

This was a period of change at the University and Sir James oversaw the construction of a number of new facilities, as well as growth in student numbers. He was still able to find time to spend in the laboratories, publishing a number of scientific papers about smoking and lung cancer during this time.

Sir James retired from Exeter in 1965. A keen supporter of education in developing countries, he went on to become the Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Africa.

Sir John Llewellyn

Exeter’s second Vice-Chancellor was also a chemist and academic – having lectured at Birkbeck College, London. During World War Two, Sir John spent time researching explosives for the Ministry of Supply. Afterwards he emigrated to New Zealand to take up the position of Chair of Chemistry for the University of Auckland; his first Vice-Chancellor role followed, for the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. When the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation was established, he was its first Chairman.

He took up his role as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter in 1966; a position he held for six years. This was a time of expansion at the University with ten new buildings on the Streatham campus a large increase in the number of students – 1,000 of whom were housed in new halls of residence.

The construction programme included homes for the Chemistry and Physics departments, the Newman, Laver and Engineering Buildings and Streatham Court.

Sir John went on to become a Director General of the British Council and was at its helm when a Government commissioned report recommended it be abolished or overseas network closed down. Needless to say the recommendations weren’t implemented and today the British Council works on the ground in 100 countries, across six continents.

Professor Harry Kay

Professor Harry Kay was Exeter’s third Vice-Chancellor, during one of the more challenging times for the sector when the Thatcher government made cuts in higher education spending.

Professor Kay attended Cambridge as an under-graduate and took degrees in English Literature and Psychology. As a psychologist, he worked at Oxford and Sheffield universities, as well as for the Nuffield Unit for Research into the Problems of Ageing. He was also a President of The British Psychological Society. 

He joined Exeter in 1973 at a time when universities were still expanding. However, six years later Government cuts meant the University was forced to reduce both staff and student numbers.

Despite these challenges there were also considerable successes during his tenure. In 1978, he oversaw the merger between St Luke’s teacher training college and the University. Funding was also secured for a new library.

Professor Kay also stressed the importance of research, which was a policy set to stand the University in good stead as research excellence has become increasingly important.

Sir David Harrison

Sir David is a distinguished chemist and academic, who became a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1987.

Sir David took his first degree at Selwyn College, Cambridge and went on to take a PhD. He taught at the university and became a Fellow of Selwyn.

From Cambridge, he first moved to Keele University in 1979 becoming its Vice-Chancellor, before taking up the role at Exeter in 1984. During his time at Exeter the College of St Mark and St John in Plymouth was affiliated and in 1993 the Camborne School of Mines was incorporated – it is now based on the Penryn Campus. Like the current Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Steve Smith, Sir David also held the post of President of Universities UK from 1991-93.

Following his tenure at Exeter, Sir David returned as Master of Selwyn College and Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Cambridge. He was also on the Government’s advisory committee for the safety of nuclear installations. 

Sir Geoffrey Holland

Sir Geoffrey Holland joined the Ministry of Labour after completing National Service in the Royal Tank Regiment. He continued his highly successful career within the Civil Service for thirty years, rising to the position of Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education.

He became Vice-Chancellor at Exeter in 1994. The University had already come a long way in the 40 years since it received its Charter and in 1996 and 1998 received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize into diabetes and children’s health and exercise research, respectively. These achievements were soon followed by the creation of the Peninsula College for Medicine and Dentistry, in partnership with the University of Plymouth and the NHS in the region. This was the predecessor to the Exeter and Plymouth Medical Schools which are now in place.

Whilst serving as Vice-Chancellor Sir Geoffrey was also asked to be a member of The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education - tasked to make recommendations about the purpose, structure and size of higher education over the next 20 years. He was also a member of the Appointments Commission of the Press Complaints Commission.

Since retiring from Exeter Sir Geoffrey has been involved with numerous prestigious organisations, including as 14th President of the Marine Biological Association.

Professor Sir Steve Smith

Professor Sir Steve Smith became Vice-Chancellor in 2002 and, through his leadership and vision, Exeter is now one of the top universities in the world. When he joined, Exeter held an average position in the league tables but by June 2009 had entered the top ten in The Times league table, three years earlier than planned. Today, the University of Exeter maintains a top ten position in all the major UK league tables, and in March 2012, was invited to join the prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led universities.

Sustainable growth has been the cornerstone of Sir Steve’s strategy, building the research strengths of the University and the quality of the student experience to ensure Exeter’s continuing success and popularity. During his tenure, he has also overseen the creation of the Penryn Campus in Cornwall and a £500m capital investment programme.

Sir Steve has often told how he was once advised by a school teacher not to think of going to university. Undeterred, he graduated from the University of Southampton with a BSc in Politics and International Studies, an MSc in International Studies and a PhD in International Relations. Prior to joining Exeter he was Senior Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs) and Professor of International Politics at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, as well as Head of the Department of International Politics and Director of the Centre for Public Choice Studies at the University of East Anglia. He has been the author or editor of 17 books and well over 100 academic papers.

From 2009-11, Sir Steve was President of Universities UK. He is also Chair of both UCAS and the International Policy Network of Universities UK.

Sir Steve was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2011 for services to higher education both locally and nationally.