London Higher: The ‘Geoff Years’

Dedicated to the memory of Professor Geoffrey Eric Petts – 28 March 1953 – 11 August 2018

Professor Geoff E. Petts

My London Higher colleagues and I were greatly saddened to hear of the death of Geoff Petts on 11 August. He had worked with us in one capacity or another, and including as Chair of the London Higher Board, for over ten years.  I have written this blog in Geoff’s memory.

Geoff joined the University of Westminster as Vice Chancellor in 2007 and I first met him in the early summer of that year.  Many people are better placed to reflect on his early life, family life and of course his academic career including his research achievements as a river scientist, in particular at Loughborough and then Birmingham.  I can only speak from my own experiences gained from working with him at London Higher.

As the leader of a big London university, time to continue his research was always going to be precious but from the outset it struck me that he was determined to keep it ‘live’.  He was equally determined however to be an active participant in London Higher.  To me as CEO such enthusiasm, especially from a ‘new recruit’, was a wonderful thing – and much welcomed!

Geoff’s involvement in London Higher thus began as soon as he took up his post at Westminster.  His first venture for us was to lead a two-year HEFCE funded project that looked at the range of social, community and cultural engagement activities being undertaken by HEIs in London.

A keen sportsman, the prospect of London hosting the 2012 Games was always one he wanted to embrace to the full.  In 2009, Geoff became Chair of the London Higher 2012 project ‘Podium’.  Podium was the co-ordination and communications unit for both HE and FE in the London 2012 Games. Initiated and then managed by London Higher, it was supported by funding from both sectors and worked in London and across England to help maximise the contribution of HE and FE institutions to the Olympics and Paralympics.

Geoff was instrumental in helping to guide Podium and its team to success. Success that was duly acknowledged by HE and FE funding bodies, the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, and by Government.  He had always maintained that a successful HE sector in London was important to the success of the sector nationally – and more broadly that UK plc needed a strong London. It was no surprise that, as the glow of the 2012 Games ebbed away into a far-off sunset, Geoff moved on and in 2014 was elected by fellow heads of London HEIs to be Chair of London Higher.  He was re-elected in 2016 and should have retired only in July 2018.   His illness meant that he had to stand down as Chair early, in December of 2017.

I have wondered how to best capture his achievements as Chair of Podium and of London Higher.  To Chair a regional organisation like London Higher, where membership is voluntary and the member group diverse, is not an easy task.  The ‘place space’ makes for a strong tie but forging a meaningful agenda that appeals to 40+ distinctive HEIs all with a special and different position, and when funding for HE is not regionally driven (or even regionally informed as some would argue), presents a challenge.  And, as with any Chair role of that sort, it requires the ability and willingness to look from/at the broader perspective rather than that of a single institution (or mission group).

The ‘Geoff years’, not just when he was Chair of London Higher but looking back to 2007, embraced many, many twists and turns. The list is long but includes the ‘crash’ and then recession before economic recovery, the Olympics, a Coalition Government, the tightening up of visa and immigration policies, the Referendum result to Leave the EU that was not one London (or HE) voted for, Boris leaving as Mayor of London and Sadiq Khan arriving, and more recently a Conservative Government that has driven through a raft of changes impacting on HE that include, of course, the Higher Education and Research Act. Many of the HE collaborations, including regional ones, that were around in 2007 are not these days.  London Higher navigated a way through. And Geoff in one guise or another was a key to that.

How will I remember him?  As someone who was full of life and with a story for just about all occasions.  A boss with whom I could, and sometimes did, disagree but who never held a grudge and was magnanimous in victory as well as gracious in (occasional!) defeat.  He was comfortable talking with everyone. He always made time for and showed an interest in the team – not just me but all the London Higher staff who he met.  His penchant for unusual trips and holidays was noted. Perhaps the most obvious being his dog sledding venture.  Back at London Higher base there was a chuckle when we learned about that one – and a collective sigh when he returned with only his arm in a sling. I also recall well how proud he was of the history of Westminster. He used to tell London Higher colleagues and visitors we brought there about, and if he could show them around, the Regents Street building in particular. The reopening of the Regent Street cinema, for instance, clearly held a special place.

He seemed to know a lot of London pubs (!) and sometimes of an evening, usually after a London Higher business event of some sort, we went to one or other of them. I learned very early on that his capacity for red wine was far greater than mine.  We had both been keen sportsman in our respective younger days and we talked sport a lot (not just over the Olympic period).  Only Geoff, I think, could have persuaded me out of longstanding retirement to play cricket one summers’ afternoon on the University playing fields. I wasn’t very impressive! Latterly horse racing, and especially a racehorse he acquired an ownership interest in, entered the conversation. I suspect not many Vice Chancellors will have pursued that as a hobby. As it happened this one proved to be a ‘good jumper but slow’! When he said that my hopes about winning a few quid were dashed instantly…

Geoff almost always had a smile to offer and a gleam in his eye.  Even when I struggled to see positives, he did.  Knowing a bit about his thoughts on retirement and the new phase of his life he and Judith were planning, and given his full-on approach to living, the onset of the illness and how quickly it moved are especially bitter to look back on.  As a sportsman and competitor he was always going to fight with courage and as hard as anyone could – and that he did.  Even very recently he was thinking forward.  The fact that Geoff never had a chance to enjoy his retirement seems so unfair. It is a salient reminder to me, and all of us, that we don’t know what might lurk around the corner. Making the most of everything day to day is incredibly important.

Earlier in the year, in one of his email bulletins, Geoff said that he was really missing London Higher.  Oh Geoff – how much we are going to miss you.  You will be remembered.

My thoughts and those of my London Higher colleagues are with Judith and those closest to Geoff.