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Tributes paid after death of much-revered former Harper Adams Principal

Posted 15 March

Official portrait of gentleman wearing a suit and tie next to the words: “The impact of Dr Harris’s outstanding leadership as Principal of Harper Adams can be seen across all our activities... We are immensely grateful for and proud of his service and his continued support during his retirement.”

Dr Tony Harris CBE

Harper Adams University is paying its respects to former Principal, Dr Tony Harris.

Dr Anthony (Tony) George Harris, an unfaltering champion of British agricultural education and an individual well known throughout British farming circles, died last weekend at the age of 92. 

Throughout his life Tony Harris was heavily involved with farming and the farming community of the country, and was responsible for the education of many of Britain’s most successful farmers over more than five decades. 

Such was his belief in the land as the source of much that is good in Britain, and such was his commitment to those who care for and maintain it through their farming practices, that following retirement in 1994, from the post of Principal of Harper Adams, he continued tirelessly for more than a decade to serve on a variety of agriculture and rural committees at both regional and national levels.

From 1950-52 Dr Harris studied agriculture at Seale-Hayne Agricultural College, near Newton Abbott in Devon, qualifying with a College Diploma in Agriculture and the National Diploma in Agriculture, after which he completed his National Service in the Intelligence Corps. 

In 1953 he embarked on his career in agricultural education as a lecturer in agriculture at the Dorset College of Agriculture. Two years later, in 1955, he moved to teach crop production at Harper Adams Agricultural College where he worked for three years before taking the position of Vice-Principal at the Shropshire Farm Institute, subsequently Walford College of Agriculture.

In 1967 he moved to Surrey to take the position of Principal of Merrist Wood Agricultural College where among many notable achievements he was instrumental in the development of the first arboriculture and tree surgery courses outside the USA. 

Following a decade at Merrist Wood, Tony Harris returned to Shropshire in 1977 as Principal of Harper Adams Agricultural College, home at the time to 400 students, where he remained until his retirement.

During his time as Principal he oversaw a period of continual growth and expansion in both the institution’s fabric and educational offering, transforming it from the more traditional college of his predecessors’ days to a forward looking, technologically orientated agricultural institution.  In many ways the work of Tony Harris while Principal of Harper Adams laid the foundations upon which the institution of today has been built, and of which his successors were the fortunate beneficiaries.

Under his leadership, students were given a voice on the Board of Governors for the first time, procedures were reviewed, and new ideas and direction emerged. Dr Harris created the college’s first strategic plan in 1978. Faced with the challenges of changing funding arrangements in the 1980s, new, commercial short courses and the college facilities were opened up for wider use as an event and conference venue.

There was enormous pressure on smaller colleges to amalgamate, but Harper Adams remained independent. By 1991-92 student numbers had passed the thousand mark, reaching 1,525 by the time he retired in 1994.

Degree teaching had arrived with the introduction of BSc Honours routes in agriculture, agri-food marketing and REALM – Rural Enterprise and Land Management – among others. Harper Adams was one of the earliest providers of a BSc sandwich degree course. There was also greater emphasis on postgraduate and postgraduate research education.

Principal Harris hosted VIP visitors from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to Princess Margaret – who opened the teaching laboratories bearing her name in 1985. He oversaw the campus expansion, including the construction of new Halls of Residence, including Harris Hall, which continues to be used today.

In 1991 Tony Harris was appointed OBE for services to Agriculture and in 1996, two years after his retirement, he was awarded a Fellowship of Harper Adams and conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of the Open University.

On his departure in 1994, the college “stood firmly on the national stage and was moving confidently towards degree-awarding status, possessed of the efficiency and strength to meet its future, accepting change as a challenge but never a threat”. – Lure of the Land, A century of education at Harper Adams, by Heather Williams, 2001.

In the 2005 New Year Honours, Dr Tony Harris was appointed CBE.

The University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ken Sloan said: “All Principals and Vice-Chancellors benefit from the legacy of their predecessors. This provides the foundations for their contributions and their work. The impact of Dr Harris’s outstanding leadership as Principal of Harper Adams can be seen across all our activities.  His confident securing of the College’s (now University’s) independence has led to it achieving its position as the largest and leading UK specialist institution in agri-food and the disciplines that contribute to it. We are immensely grateful for and proud of his service and his continued support during his retirement”.

The thoughts of Harper Adams staff, students and alumni are with his family at this time.

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