10:20am Tuesday 12th February 2013
By Mark Tallentire
WHEN a young Chris Higgins travelled north for his fresher year as a Durham University undergraduate in the autumn of 1973, he had no idea how big a part in his life the city would become.
The future vice-chancellor’s early life was one of constant change, as the family moved across the Atlantic and back, following the work of his mathematician father, Philip.
He was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Chris, the eldest of four boys, was born there. And by the time Philip and Betty’s second son was born, the family was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US, where Philip was working for Harvard University.
A couple of years later, it was back to England, firstly at Queen Mary University, London, and then King’s College London.
The young Chris was a talented musician. He played the violin and studied at the Royal College of Music.
When the time came to go to university, he opted for botany; and Durham – partly because it was “as far away as possible”.
But, he admits, he spent much of his time concerned with music – leading an orchestra on overseas tours and more.
“It was a fantastic time,” he recalls, sitting in his office in Durham University’s gleaming new Palatine Centre headquarters, in Stockton Road. “It was great fun. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without coming to Durham University.”
Of course, Durham was a very different place back then. Chris’ first term at Grey College was during the notorious three-day week. His memories of the power shortages – of three hours on, three hours off, and colleges only providing a hot meal every other day – remain strong.
Undergraduates were supplied with candles to study by, he remembers.
But he must have enjoyed himself, because when he decided to take his studies further and pursue a PhD, he remained in Durham.
In 1978, his father followed him north and was appointed head of maths at Durham. Indeed, Philip and Betty still live in the city and remain part of the Senior Common Room at Collingwood College.
Years later, a third generation of Higgins would follow suit, with Chris’ daughter Julia studying at Durham.
Chris left in 1979, again heading across the pond to take up a molecular biology research post at Berkeley University, in California.
He was curious to “understand how things work”, he says, particularly how molecules get out of cells.
His research began on plants, before switching to bacteria – a field in which he made significant breakthroughs.
Chris investigated how cancerous cells resisted chemotherapy treatment and his research also saw progress in treatment of cystic fibrosis.
From Berkeley he went to Dundee, then Oxford to run the Imperial Cancer Research Fund laboratory.
In 1993, he became Nuffield Professor of Clinical Biochemistry at Oxford – the first non-medic to hold the post. Then, five years later, he went to Imperial College, London.
He has published more than 200 papers in cell biology and genetics and served as an adviser to Parliamentary committees.
By 2007, he says, the research questions he had been investigating since he was a student he had “got as far as I wanted to take them”.
Hence, to stay in his field would have meant starting something new.
Instead, he was approached by his alma mater about the vice-chancellor’s role.
By chance, Julia was studying at Durham at the time, so he rang her to see how the place had changed since he left in the late 1970s.
“I couldn’t say no,” Chris recalls.
“It’s the job I wanted, because I believe in the institution.”
Chris, aged 57, and a father of five, has charge of an institution with 4,000 staff, 16,000 students and a turnover of £270m.
In the six years since he took over as vice-chancellor, the fortunes of Durham have improved.
It has moved from being between tenth and 15th in the university league tables to being firmly in the top five. And from being in “pretty poor shape” financially, it is now making a “significant surplus”, says Chris. It has also increased its international outlook, establishing a standing in the world’s top 100 universities.
So, if that long-haired 1970s student had been told he was a future vice-chancellor, how would he have responded?
“I would have said: ‘What’s a vicechancellor?’,”
Chris replies. “I had no idea how the university was run.
“It made me think: I must get around to meet students all the time.
I now spend most evenings at student events. It’s hard work but extraordinarily worthwhile.
“Durham provides so many opportunities for students to develop.
It’s about helping students get the best education and go out into the world – that’s so important. We provide the best education for the brightest and best.”
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