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Professor Norman Gibson (1931 - 2014):
Academic; Educationalist; University administrator

Norman Gibson was a major figure in the higher education and socio-political landscape of Northern Ireland for a period of over 30 years; spanning its troubled and transformational years from the 1960s to the 1990s. 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). He was an unwavering advocate of a pluralist Ireland and supported his opinions through a range of academic and other publications analysing various economic and political models.

Born in Lisnaskea in Co Fermanagh in 1931, Norman James Gibson studied at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen before progressing to Queen’s University, Belfast where he graduated in Economics with first class honours in 1953.  He then embarked upon doctoral research studies in Economics at Queen’s graduating with a PhD in 1959.  In receipt of a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship he was afforded the opportunity to advance his studies in Economics at the University of Chicago in 1958-9. It was in Chicago that he met his future wife, Faith, who was a visiting Australian Fulbright Scholar. They married in 1959 in New York. Gibson was appointed to an Assistant Lectureship at Queen’s in 1956 and to a Lectureship in 1959. In 1962 he was appointed Lecturer in Economics, and subsequently Senior Lecturer, at the University of Manchester.

The establishment of the New University of Ulster allowed Norman Gibson the opportunity to return to his native Northern Ireland. He was appointed founding Professor of Economics in 1967. He was committed to ensuring that Economics should be taught to the highest standards.  He made Mathematics and Econometrics a part of the core syllabus and developed innovative joint programmes with Accounting and other disciplines.  Later, in 1982, he introduced another successful and innovative programme, an in-service Diploma and linked honours BSc in Banking and Finance with the support of the Institute of Bankers in Ireland.  All these programmes were innovative, modern and widely respected. He was the first Dean of the School of Social Sciences, and also served as a Pro-Vice-Chancellor, of NUU.

Gibson’s commitment to high academic standards was a defining characteristic of his contribution to higher education in Northern Ireland. It was underpinned by his deep commitment to Cardinal JH Newman’s “Idea of a University”, driven by knowledge and scholarship and free from undue influence or pressure 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, following the publication in 1982 of a Northern Ireland higher education review chaired by Sir Henry Chilver, that the charter of NUU should be prorogued and the institution merged with the Ulster Polytechnic to form a new university. Gibson, like a number of others, was outraged at what he felt was an unacceptable assault upon the autonomy of NUU. Eventually he was persuaded that, in order to protect the ideals he cherished, the best course of action was to play a full and active part in the merger negotiations. In this he was reinforced by his interactions with Derek Birley, the Rector of the Polytechnic. Crucially, Birley shared his view on university autonomy and freedom from external meddling. They both believed that a priority for the merged institution should be to effect a substantial increase in the numbers of university students based in the North West, with the Magee campus of the new institution based in Derry deserving particular affirmative action. The close working professional relationship of Birley and Gibson was crucial in establishing an institution committed to high standards and which had the support of the vast majority of staff at all levels. 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 from fewer than 200 prior to the 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. The reputation of the University for producing well rounded graduates of high employability grew along with its overall reputation as a clearly focussed and successful institution. Gibson represented UU on the higher education review group chaired by Sir Clifford Butler which reported in 1988 and resulted in the concentration of the physical sciences at Queen’s and Business and Management at UU.

Towards the end of his Pro-Vice-Chancellorship, Gibson assumed responsibility for research policy. The early research performance of the new institution was, with few exceptions, relatively modest. By the early 1990s, with the advent of the periodic national research assessment (RAE), it became clear that institutional reputation demanded a respectable research performance in at least some subject areas. While recognising that research selectivity was potentially divisive, Gibson accepted its necessity  and, working in close collaboration with the future Vice-Chancellor, Gerry McKenna, was resolute in supporting the associated policies and practices which led to UU being one of only 20 universities having a 5*-rated area in the 1996 RAE and also one of 20 having two such areas in 2001.

Gibson’s research and scholarship in economics were initially influenced by his year in Chicago in the late 1950s.  However, over time he became increasingly sceptical about the dominant role of neoclassical economics and increasingly concerned about 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 early work concentrated on issues in banking and finance.  His PhD thesis was on banking in Ireland.  In 1967 he published a paper (one of the series published by the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and known as the Hobart Papers) on financial intermediaries and monetary policy arguing that the growth of financial intermediation was good for the economy and where their activities could undermine monetary policy, the monetary authorities could readily offset such negative effects. This was contrary to the view of the Radcliffe Committee of 1959 which had concluded that financial intermediaries could undermine monetary policy through their influence on general liquidity.  He contributed the chapter on money, banking and finance in AR Prest’s 1966 book A Manual of Applied Economics (London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson) which he updated in many editions subsequently.

Norman Gibson placed great importance on serving the community, especially the local community. 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 an arbitrator for the Labour Relations Agency. He also undertook applied research aimed at benefiting the local economy.  This included a study of the bread industry, and with a colleague, John E Spencer, Professor of Economics at NUU (and later Professor Emeritus of Queen’s University, Belfast), a study of the agriculture livestock sector and, later, a discussion of policies to reduce general unemployment in the province. Also with Spencer, he edited in 1977 Economic Activity in Ireland: A Study of Two Open Economies (Dublin, Gill & MacMillan), perhaps the first study to examine systematically the functioning and interdependence of the economies of the two parts of Ireland.  Deeply concerned by the civil strife in Northern Ireland, he organised a conference in 1974 on the economics of various political alternatives for ending violence there. In much of his work then and subsequently, his anxiety about the high dependence of the local economy on Great Britain, the large size of the public sector and scale of the net transfer from the British Exchequer to Northern Ireland was apparent.

Gibson retired from the University of Ulster in 1996. He remained active well into retirement, writing critical articles on inter alia university governance and higher education planning.  He was a regular attender and active participant in the work and activities of the Royal Irish Academy to which he was elected a Member (MRIA) in 1974; one of only three NUU academics to be so honoured during its 16 years of existence. 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 Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland 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 and read widely. He admired war-time Archbishop William Temple for his thoughtful Christianity and his concern for ordinary people.  Among philosophers, he held Simone Weil in a high place and among poets, he read much of John Hewitt and Seamus Heaney.  A committed ecumenist and practising member of the Church of Ireland, he frequently challenged what he perceived to be anachronistic and unyielding stances by the churches, inhibiting reconciliation between the Christian religions. He had an abhorrence of prejudice and bigotry and stood against these irrespective of controversy and trouble. 

A person of great personal kindness and charity, Norman Gibson had a hugely engaging personality, enriched with a sometimes pithy wit. He was exceedingly hard working and possessed a resolute commitment to causes he felt passionately about. This could be intimidating to some and enlivened the University Senate chamber and other forums on a number of occasions. His insistence on sound and transparent governance and policy making is an important part of the legacy he bequeathed to his supporters and acolytes.

Norman Gibson was a devoted husband and family man; he and Faith had two sons and a daughter, all of whom survived him. 

Born: 13 December 1931
Died: 8 July 2014
Gerry McKenna & John Spencer