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Professor Kenneth Barker CBE – a tribute to the first Vice-Chancellor of De Montfort University


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Tributes have been paid to the first Vice-Chancellor of De Montfort University, Professor Kenneth Barker CBE, who passed away last week.

Professor Barker was responsible for overseeing the transition of Leicester Polytechnic to De Montfort University in 1992 - arguably the single greatest transformation the university has undergone since it was founded as the Leicester School of Art 150 years ago.

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Professor Barker in his official robes as DMU Vice-Chancellor

Under his respected leadership, academics and students were led into a new era of higher education. The fundamentals of teaching and learning laid out during his tenure have led to DMU becoming the global university it is today.

Professor Barker’s granddaughter Isabelle Barker, speaking on behalf of the family, said: “For a man who achieved so much, Kenneth was an incredibly humble and modest man, but he was proud of what was achieved at DMU. The university is his legacy

“Kenneth took on an incredibly challenging role when he became Vice-Chancellor in 1987 and demonstrated great vision and leadership to his fellow academics and students and proved to be a great mentor to the people around him.

“We have been greatly moved by all the messages we have received from former colleagues who have spoken about how much they valued his friendship and guidance, and how much they respected him.”

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Professor Barker with The Queen at DMU in 1993

Professor Barker was born in Darlington, County Durham, in 1934. He showed a great love for music from a very early age and gained a place at the prestigious Royal College of Music in the 1950s – briefly interrupted by National Service – where he honed his skills as a concert pianist, cellist and harpist.

Professor Barker would go on to teach others and share his passion for music, holding positions as a school master at various comprehensive schools in the south of England before becoming Vice Principal at Gipsy Hill College, London.

He devoted great energy to improving the quality of the academic curriculum at Gipsy Hill ensuring its merger with Kingston Polytechnic was successful and to the benefit of both organisations. Professor Barker then took up the position as Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Kingston Polytechnic where music began to play a prominent role not just within the institution but the community it served.

Professor Barker’s greatest achievements, however, came to fruition when he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Leicester Polytechnic in 1987.

From 1987 to 1992, he worked tirelessly with his fellow academics to bring about the changes that saw Leicester Polytechnic transition to DMU.

It involved the enormous task of bringing together academics and students, based at campuses in Bedfordshire, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire, to share the vision of working as one, as well as creating the name and branding that exists today. Professor Barker also broke new ground by becoming the first Vice-Chancellor to use TV advertising to promote a university.

Professor Barker was also an advocate in the early 90s for diversity and recognised the important role DMU should play within the Leicester community.

In 1989, thanks to the characteristic foresight of Professor Barker and his team, DMU set out to design what was then Europe's largest naturally ventilated building to help reduce carbon emissions. The landmark brick structure with its trademark turreted roof vents was completed in 1993, costing roughly £9.3 million. On 13 August 1993, the Queen herself visited DMU and christened it The Queen's Building.

Professor Barker was made a CBE for Services to Education in 1994 and his statue still stands at the main entrance of the Queen’s Building, over-looking the tens of thousands of students and academics who have passed through its doors over the last 27 years.

The Vice-Chancellor was hugely privileged to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela by presenting him with an honorary degree from DMU at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace.

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Presenting a DMU Honorary Degree to President Nelson Mandela

President Mandela - the first Black President of South Africa and the personification of reconciliation and the pursuit of a better life - said at the time of the award in 1996: “It is…a singular privilege and pleasure …to have such accolades bestowed on me.

“I do understand, however, that it is not individual achievements which are being honoured. Rather it is the remarkable way in which South Africans have turned from division and conflict to reconciliation and the peaceful pursuit of a better life.

“In this spirit, and on their behalf, I express my gratitude for these magnanimous awards and accept them with deepest humility.”

Professor Barker retired from his role at DMU in 1999. To show appreciation of his exceptional contribution, the esteemed composer Sally Beamish was commissioned by DMU to write a piece of music titled ‘String Quartet No 1’ dedicated to the Vice-Chancellor. It was performed as a farewell by the international ensemble The Schidlof Quartet.

Recognising Professor Barker’s love of sport, and rugby in particular, one colleague said: “His approach to leadership often reflected his sporting background. He would often spot a gap other people had missed and elegantly run through it.”

From his time as a teacher to his retirement, Professor Barker always tried to support and encourage others to achieve their full potential. He was immensely proud of the achievements of his colleagues at DMU and took great satisfaction from watching their careers develop.

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Presenting an Honorary Degree to Sir David Attenborough

Isabelle added: “Kenneth lived his later years through his family and was generous to a fault. 

“He loved and treasured family gatherings and wrote many eloquent emails discussing education, politics and business with former colleagues.”

One colleague added: “As a mark of the affection and respect for him, a group of some ten DMU founders met twice a year over a meal and a glass, where Ken was the honoured member.” 

Professor Barker died from a stroke, following a fall and a short stay in hospital over Christmas.

His family were able to visit the professor in hospital where the music of his favourite cellist Jaqueline Du Pre was playing for him. Twenty minutes after the last family member left his room, Professor Barker passed away.

Isabelle said: “It was almost as if Kenneth had to say his goodbyes first. His life was family, rugby and music.

“It is reassuring and comforting for all of us that when Kenneth passed away it was with his family and his music.”

Professor Barker is survived by his wife Jean, who he was married to for 62 years, his children Adam and Corinne and his five grandchildren Rosie, Isabelle, Lily, Poppy and Charlie.

Posted on Wednesday 13th January 2021

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