2014 Short Obituary: Professor Norman Gibson CBE MRIA

Obituary: Professor Norman Gibson CBE MRIA

Norman Gibson was a major figure in the higher education and socio-political landscape of Northern Ireland for a period of over 30 years. He will be remembered for his courage, integrity and independence of mind. Gibson was a founding academic of the New University of Ulster (NUU) and played a critical role in the successful establishment of the University of Ulster (UU).

Born in Lisnaskea in Co Fermanagh in 1931, Norman James Gibson attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen before studying economics at Queen’s University Belfast where he obtained a first class honours in 1953 and a PhD in 1959.  He advanced his studies in economics at the University of Chicago in 1958-9 where he met his future wife, Faith, then a visiting Australian Fulbright Scholar. They married in 1959 in New York.

Gibson lectured at Queen’s and Manchester before his appointment in 1967 as founding Professor of economics at NUU. He extended economics teaching into joint degree programmes with other disciplines, including accounting, and developed the first university in-service programmes in Banking and Finance with the support of the Institute of Bankers in Ireland. His commitment to high academic standards was a defining characteristic of his contribution to higher education in Northern Ireland, underpinned by his allegiance to the Newman ‘Idea of a University’, driven by knowledge and scholarship and free from undue influence from any external quarter.

It was his belief in the ‘Newman doctrine’ which caused Gibson much anguish when the then ‘direct rule’ government in Northern Ireland decided that the charter of NUU should be prorogued and the institution merged with the Ulster Polytechnic to form a new university. Although initially outraged, eventually he was persuaded to play a full and productive part in the merger negotiations. In this he was reinforced by his interactions with Derek Birley, the Rector of the Polytechnic The institution was named the University of Ulster and came into being formally on 1 October 1984 with Birley as Vice Chancellor and Gibson as Pro Vice Chancellor for Academic Planning.

Gibson was indefatigable in his oversight of academic planning within UU. He oversaw the expansion of student numbers at the Magee campus in Derry from fewer than 200 pre-merger to over 2000 by the early 1990s when he stepped down as Pro Vice Chancellor. In the same period numbers at Coleraine almost doubled to over 4,000. Overall numbers increased by nearly 50 per cent to over 16,000.

Towards the end of his Pro Vice Chancellorship, Gibson assumed responsibility for research policy. While recognising that research selectivity was potentially divisive Gibson, working in tandem with the future Vice Chancellor, Gerry McKenna, accepted its necessity and was resolute in supporting the associated policies which led to UU being one of only 20 universities having a 5*-rated area in the 1996 UK-wide Research Assessment Exercise.

Gibson’s research and scholarship in economics, mainly in banking and finance, were initially influenced by his year in Chicago in the late 1950s.  However, over time he became increasingly concerned about the dominant role of neo-classical economics and some of the implications of free markets.  He was convinced that common phenomena in economic life, including uncertainty and externalities, were too little regarded by policy makers and theorists.  His later work was applied, usually aimed at benefitting the local economy. He organised a 1974 conference on the economics of various political alternatives for ending violence in Northern Ireland; and he carried out a study of the bread industry and another, with colleague John Spencer, on the agriculture livestock sector. They also edited Economic Activity in Ireland (1977), a pioneering attempt to examine the interdependence of the economies of the two parts of Ireland.

Norman Gibson placed great importance on serving the community more generally.  He was a member of the Northern Ireland Commission established in 1972 by the first direct rule Secretary of State, William Whitelaw, to advise on major governance issues. He served occasionally as arbitrator for the Labour Relations Agency. 

Gibson retired from the University of Ulster in 1996. He remained active until recently, writing critical articles on inter alia university governance and higher education planning.  He was an active participant in the Royal Irish Academy to which he was elected a Member (MRIA) in 1974. He served as an Academy Council member in the 1980s and was a member of the North-South Committee from 2007-2012. His contributions to Irish economics south of the border also included some 21 years’ service as Council member of the ESRI from 1969-1990, and four years, 1973-1977, as an Irish Government nominated member of the newly established National Economic and Social Council in Dublin. He was appointed a CBE in the 1991 Birthday Honours list.

Outside his academic work, Norman Gibson had a lifelong interest in theology, philosophy and Irish history. He was a committed ecumenist and practising member of the Church of Ireland.

A person of great personal kindness, Norman Gibson had a hugely engaging personality, enriched with a pithy wit. He was exceedingly hard working and possessed a resolute commitment to causes he felt passionately about.

Norman Gibson is survived by his wife Faith, daughter Kathryn, daughter-in-law Janice, sons Michael and Patrick, and four grandchildren.

(Norman James Gibson; born 13 December, 1931, died 8 July, 2014).

Professor Gerry McKenna MRIA and Professor John E. Spencer

(Gerry McKenna is Professor Emeritus of Biological and Biomedical Sciences and a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ulster. John Spencer is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Queen’s University Belfast and a former Professor of Economics at the New University of Ulster and the University of Ulster).



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