Professor Randal Richards

Randal Richards [for biographical notes click Randal Richards' Research Group] served as chairman for 22 months from 1 August 2001, having appointed his successor acting chairman for the period 2003 June-August, his final three months with the University1). Guided by an ambitious five-year strategy devised with his predecessor and adopted by the Department before he took office, he ensured with characteristically forthright drive that new laboratories with the latest instrumentation were available for materials-chemistry analysis, laid the ground for the expansion of research into bioactive chemistry, led a restructuring of the curriculum for fourth-year undergraduates and oversaw a transformation of demeaning circulation space.

By 2003, the annual increase in applications to read undergraduate chemistry at Durham (10%) was well above the subject’s national level (-2%). Yet the national undergraduate landscape was being changed by the QAA's pursuit of uniformity (QAA: the Government’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education). At Durham, from October 2002, the Michaelmas Term was lengthened from 9 weeks to 10, Epiphany remained at 9 and the Easter Term was cut into three 3-week blocks for teaching, examinations and results/registration. From October 2003 examinations and coursework could be retaken by second-year undergraduates, as they were barred from progressing with less than five of their six module marks at 40% or greater – in 2004, those with four such marks after retakes were to exit in September with diplomas. First-year undergraduates with those marks exited with certificates. October 2003 also ushered in the Department's reshaped curricula for fourth-year undergraduate chemists. In 2002 and 2003, firms had proved reluctant to host a January-July research project for the industrial-chemistry route to M.Chem.2); for 2003-4 they were offered and readily accepted October-July. That offer required the moving of December examinations to the Easter Term. Parity and concurrence with the Durham-based project route were maintained by a similar redistribution of its project hours and rescheduling of its examinations. Two of the industrial-chemistry modules were set up for delivery by distance learning, one being in parallel with the lectures of one of the Durham-route’s modules so as to be examinable formally by the same question paper at the same time and in the same Durham room. The new curriculum of the international-chemistry route was modelled on its industrial counterpart. From June 2002 onwards, these and other teaching developments were reviewed annually by all teaching staff in their sections (inorganic, organic, physical-theoretical) at away-days. They informed the core of the formal September review that QAA required. February 2002 found a documentation team completing the assembly of evidence that the Department was providing a commendable learning experience for its undergraduate and postgraduate students. That month, the University conducted a formal QAA-compliant review of the evidence, including interviews with students and staff; as in 1998, the reviewers’ commendations exceeded their recommendations. From the preceding month, the availability of a new fire escape relieved students from the vertiginous balcony traverse, 2.5-metre descent by vertical ladder and concluding 1.8-metre freefall that for 39 years had attended rehearsal evacuations of room 127, an undergraduate laboratory. Strenuous efforts to persuade the University to upgrade the laboratory itself were not rewarded until the following chairmanship. Yet the prevailing memories of students from those years were happy, bringing together 29 from the years of 1963-9 in 2003 for an April reunion of former undergraduates and postgraduates Jim Feast's Research Group, section 3.

The retirements of Jim Feast, Robin Harris and Mel Kilner, coupled with the moves of Stuart Althorpe and Randal Richards to other positions – though offset by the arrival of David Hodgson - produced a discontinuity in the growth in number (at October 1) of research-group leaders; 32 became 28. Yet funding for two appointments in 2004 was secured, research-grant income per leader from the Government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council remained higher than the national average and the recruitment of first-year doctoral students in the calendar years 2001-3 held steady – 26, 25 and 25 – despite falling national support of doctoral training by the Council. The equipment in the newly completed Materials Chemistry Building was as eye-catching as its exterior, including an ion-beam analyser, a 400 MHz wide-bore NMR solid-state spectrometer, equipment for X-ray scattering and reflectometry, a scanning electron microscope and a matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionisation time-of-flight mass spectrometer. The presence of two new support staff specialising in its use completed an enormous improvement in the analytical techniques available to the Department’s researchers. Of great significance to the ensuing chairmanship Professor David Parker-2nd chairmanship was a grant of 3.2 M£, announced to the University in September 2001 and available in the following two fiscal years, from the first biennial tranche of the Government’s Science Research Investment Fund (SRIF; succesor to JIF Professor Jeremy Hutson). The grant, based on universities' research income in the perceding two fiscal years, supported the building of new accommodation for E-Science, Geography and Geology (EGG Building) and the subsequent refurbishment of empty Geology rooms above Chemistry accommodation. The University’s application for support had earmarked them for research into bioactive chemistry.

The University’s increasing size and complexity was making its dealings with academic departments more managerially focussed. From August 2002, the Board of the Faculty of Science became a committee of Science-Faculty chairman, chaired by a Dean of Science who had been appointed full-time rather than seconded part-time from one of the Faculty’s departments. Chairmen were invited to serve for 5 years rather than 3. By March 2003 however, Chemistry had secured an agreement that the term of its chairman be four years, with the first year of service as chairman designate, concurrent with the outgoer’s final year. Complexity had caused departments to break with tradition too; in August 2001, the chairman reconstituted the management advisory group, added an infrastructure advisory group and merged the executive and consultative safety committees. The changes helped to administer a new infrastructure fund; the implications of legislation about disability discrimination, race relations and diversity; the rolling programme to test the safeness of portable appliances; and changes to conditions of service (such as appointments, promotions, maternity leave) of staff at all grades. Interaction of academic staff with technical and administrative staff deepened.

The greatest improvement to accommodation during the chairmanship was also the first break with the Science Laboratories tradition of brick-faced buildings. By November 2001 the smooth grey composite cladding of the three-storey Materials Chemistry Building was complete and its interior was in use. The Building, from which fume cupboards had been excluded deliberately, rose from a site occupied until the preceding July by a 1960s flammable-solvent store (with rooms above for solvent recovery and Carius-tube furnaces) and an adjacent 1930s single-storey Chemistry workshop for mechanical and electronic services, with a holding room for waste solvent at its west end. The Building’s lowest level, funded by the University, rehoused the workshop services – with metalworking machinery upgraded substantially - and the furnaces. The JIF agreement reached during the preceding chairmanship funded the upper levels for the valuable equipment listed in paragraph three (above) and the University financed a new detached brick-faced building, 20 metres north, for all solvents and solvent waste. Decantation into the new research space allowed the Department to accommodate in its main building the last viable unit of the University of Durham Industrial Research Laboratories (UDIRL)3) in anticipation of the gradual relocation of the University's central administration from various sites in the City's Elvet district to the Mountjoy Centre. So in October 2003, when July’s dust in Chemistry had settled, the national solid-state NMR service (Robin Harris' Research Group, footnote 1) moved from Mountjoy 1 to occupy rooms that on refurbishment had become 022 - restored to its original size4) - and 024. That dust arose - not from the ongoing refurbishment of 1960s synthesis laboratories (101; 2002, January) - but during the chairmanship's other mould-breaking improvement to accommodation: the University's upgrading of circulation areas in the Department’s main workspace. Though lacking the allure of a new building, the upgrade was arguably as important. The chairman’s dogged two-year campaign produced action in July-August 2003 that began with bedlam yet resulted in a revitalised central stairwell and concourse with the Department's four plasma-screen notice-boards (2002) in strategic positions, upgraded toilets, new flooring, lighting and paintwork in all corridors and at last a fire-alert controller designed for all four stages of the building, with new sounders and fire doors. [Further Departmental campaigning made fire protection fully functional by October 2005.] Eyesores accumulated through four decades of penny pinching had been banished and the Department could look its distinguished visitors and prospective students in the eye.

For 1998-2001, see Professor Randal Richards; for 2003-2006, see Professor David Parker-2nd chairmanship.

1) University of Durham, Board of Studies in Chemistry, minutes 2001-2003.
2) Initially, from 1995, the four-year programme that Durham undergraduate chemists entered led to the degree of Master in Science in Chemistry, M.Sci.(Chem.) [first graduations in 1999]. Increasingly, universities nationwide began to recruit to four-year programmes leading to Master in Chemistry, M.Chem.; by 2000, the four-year programme at Durham also led new entrants exclusively to M.Chem.. The first M.Chem. graduations at Durham were in 2002 and 2003 by M.Sci.(Chem.) entrants opting for the new designation; the last M.Sci.(Chem.) graduations were in 2003.
3) UDIRL, established in 1985, had been the first occupant of Mountjoy 1's southward-pointing Holly wing when it had been known as block 2 of the building known as the Mountjoy Research Centre Professor David Clark, paragraph 3. UDIRL's winding up in July 2003 allowed Holly to be refurbished as the headquarters of the University's Estates and Buildings Department.
hod/randal_richards.txt · Last modified: 2016/08/15 15:49 by euan
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