David Ward Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Academic Leadership: Conversation with David Ward, former Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin and President of the American Council on Education; 5/2/01 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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David, welcome to Berkeley.

Glad to be here.

Where were you born and raised?

Manchester, England. I was there until the age eighteen, and traveled across the Pennines to the northeast side of England to Leeds, where I received my undergraduate degree. I am a child of the North Country of England. Never had a BBC accent.

How, in retrospect, do you think your parents shaped your character?

The main thing was that even though they were not educated themselves, they sensed that the North County of England in the forties and fifties was a place that didn't quite know where it was going. It was clearly not depressed, but with an economy without direction. I think they both sensed that the maximum choice would occur through education. Particularly in high school, which at that time was pretty tough in England -- it was very selective -- they gave me a lot of support, which eventually got me into college. So I think their support was a recognition. I don't think they ever thought I was going to end up in North America, but they certainly sensed that it was a sort of exit visa that could come from having a college education.

What impressions are you left with of that urban environment that you were raised in, and in what ways do you think it shaped you?

The first thing is that it was a provincial environment in the best sense of the word. I suppose in the United States, [it's like] New England or Texan [provincial cultures]. South Lancashire, in the area in and around Manchester and Liverpool, eventually became either notorious or famous through the Beatles, but there was a subculture that revolved around the various elements of popular culture, like soccer on the one hand, and popular music; but on the other hand, one of the world's great orchestras, the Hallé Orchestra. The cultural life of Manchester was one of the quiet elements of that culture. I grew up in this sort of polarity of a kind of North Country provincial culture, but still had this window on a more cosmopolitan culture.

It was also a city that was surprisingly diverse ethnically: a considerable second- or third-generation Irish population, a very large Jewish population, significant numbers of Italians and Greeks. It was this old nineteenth-century commercial city, still preserving this diversity.

So it was, on the one hand, a very provincial city, and one felt very proud to be provincial and not mainstream English. But on the other hand, it was quite cosmopolitan. So I got, I think, a nice balance between a local identity and a cosmopolitan exposure.

Your father was a shopkeeper.


What do you think you learned from that experience?

Well, of course, we were a news agency, and in England, the newspapers were [assembled] in the small stores. The newspaper delivery boy delivered all newspapers, weekly and daily. So they were assembled, and I suppose in assembling them, my exposure to public life, political life, was unavoidable. I was overexposed, if you like, to many great newspapers through putting them up, stopping and reading an article, delivering them, stopping and reading an article. So that was important, I think; I couldn't avoid being well educated. And this was an era, of course, of great journalism. The Manchester Guardian, for example, is one of the world's great newspapers. We also sold -- you know, it was a corner store -- so, many other things, too. But I suppose I learned from that whole "mom and pop store" experience, which anybody will tell you is both a wonderful exposure to being enterprising, but also a little prison, in the sense that it ties you to the job in ways that are like a dairy farm. So I also grew up with this tension between being tied to the store and yet at the same time, the set of values that come out of growing up in a store. You know, it serves you well, from the commonsense point of view, the rest of your life.

What about your education before you went off to the University? How did that broaden your horizons, if it did?

In England, of course, it was very Darwinian. There was an examination at the age of eleven, and that then thinned you down to go to high school, rather than what was later called a "secondary modern" school. And I survived that examination at eleven. I don't quite know why or how, but I did. So right then I went on to a grammar school. Then at fifteen, you take a set of examinations again statewide in all the subjects that you've taken, and on the basis of that examination, you then get to do another three years, which was called the Sixth Form. I survived that. Then if you get decent grades in the subject in the Sixth Form, you get to go to college.

In some ways, I felt that I was not always mature enough to cope with the material I was being taught. It moved very fast, it was very demanding, and if you weren't agile and mature, particularly, in the humanities -- I mean, I was exposed to poetry at a level of sophistication at fourteen that I don't really believe I was ready for. On the other hand, I think it stretched me. So I look to it as an era in which I've retrospectively got a great deal of benefit from. What I took away from it was being really stretched intellectually in high school.

I don't believe that's good for everybody. I believe I was motivated enough and prepared enough to do this. But I recall in the Sixth Form, four nights a week, there would be three to four hours of homework, usually essays, or problem-solving in the sciences. This was not an easy experience, and you had to be pretty tough to do that. So I came away with deep knowledge and toughness, but not what I would call broad knowledge or self-knowledge. I think that came from college and came later.

You were telling me earlier that you actually had to pick in high school the major that you were going to take when you went on to Leeds. Tell us about that.

Well, at fifteen you take maybe eight or nine subjects, nationally, and then you choose three of them to do in the Sixth Form. So you drop down to only three subjects. And one of those three subjects, more or less, has to be the major in college. So, basically, by the age fifteen you have chosen, down to three, your major, and my three subjects were English, history, and geography. I chose geography because I suspect there was a certain amount of practicality in me that made that seem like, "Well, if I don't become an academic, at least I could become a planner." So it was a very pragmatic decision.

You apply at the age of seventeen or eighteen to enter the department, almost like a graduate student would, and so I entered the Department of Geography at Leeds, and took then for three years virtually nothing but geography.

Did you have any teachers there or professors who were an important experience for you?

Oh, yes. I would say the person who mentored me the most was a Welshman, Glanville Jones, who recognized early on that conventional geography wasn't intellectually quite my thing, that I was very multi-disciplinary, I was very interested in anthropology and history, and also pretty competent quantitatively. He customized my program, which allowed me to get a broader education than might have been normally the case. It was out of that that I began to move in the area of urban history, which both my books fit in. It so happened at Leeds at that time was a very distinguished urban historian Asa Briggs, who was Professor of Modern History. So I had this exposure, not just with geography, but with an extremely distinguished historian.

The second person who was important was Maurice Berisford, who was an economic historian, who loved to relate the landscape to historic processes. He was part geographer, part historian. He taught me a great deal about how to read documents, and enhance the document by reading the landscape.

So it was a really remarkable undergraduate education in many ways. In retrospect, I'm still amazed at how much I remember from it, and how valuable it remains with me.

Was it hard for you at this time to relate back to the culture that you had come from, or was that an easy navigation?

No, it was quite challenging. I think even a Northern British university was an alien environment to anybody who was lower-middle class, substantial working class, or whatever. You just would not have had any family exposure to it. It was not a culture that reached out to you; it was a culture that you responded to. The only way to make it was through academic distinction. There was no shortcut. You became accepted through a sort of meritocratic system, and then your culture and your accent was forgiven, so that your academic precocity was the means to break through. There was no other way to break through. That was what happened to me, that in the end I got a first-class degree, which is kind of like a four-point type thing. It's a credential in England, particularly, more so then than now, which defines you as having made it, to reach some threshold level which gave you broad accessibility in British academic life.

Where did you then pursue your graduate work?

I stayed on at Leeds. It was very difficult to change institutions at that time in England. I was given a three-year award to do a Ph.D. at Leeds, which is very common, to do your BA and your Ph.D. at the same place. But in the middle of my first year of graduate work, Glanville Jones, whom I mentioned, said, "David, four years of a good thing is too much of a good thing. We need to get you off to Australia or to Europe or to North America for a year, and then come back." So I applied for a Fulbright, and received a Fulbright. His idea was that I would go away for a year and broaden my horizons, and then come back and finish the Ph.D. at Leeds.

One of the things he then arranged for me was a contingency plan. He said, "I'm also a little worried that once you leave you might not come back," and so he had me package what was about half a Ph.D. In those days in England, a Ph.D. was entirely a research degree, no course work. Right from the beginning, you prepared your research and you began to write it up. So I actually prepared an interim report on my Ph.D., which ultimately became my Master's Degree at Leeds when it became clear I wouldn't return. So he was very smart that he had a contingency plan.

And so the question was, where should I go? In fact, I applied to Michigan, Berkeley, and Wisconsin, the three great publics at that time, and even still today. It so happened that my doctoral major professor, who was a Canadian, Andrew Clark, wrote me, and simply the personal interest he showed in me probably was what brought me to Wisconsin. Had I known what the climate was like in Berkeley, as I do today, who knows what decision I would have made!

So I ended up at Wisconsin after only one year at Leeds. And so my Master's Degree was, in a sense, a fragment of what was supposed to have been a Ph.D. at Leeds.

What year did you come, then?


1960. So what impact did Wisconsin in the sixties have on you?

Well, the first reaction, of course, was real culture shock, in a negative way. First of all, the cost of living to a Brit in 1960 was staggering. I can remember not having a haircut because haircuts were ridiculously expensive. Food was expensive. It was a real shock of living standards, which is, I think, nowhere near as great as it was then.

Secondly, I felt that my undergraduate education had been very demanding, and I found, particularly, as a TA, teaching freshman at Wisconsin seemed undemanding, and bothered me. I think I've learned to cope with that now better than I did at that time. And I understand why, because my experience was much more specialized. I found multiple choice examinations to be reprehensible. I found Midwestern piety, whether it be Lutheran, Catholic, or whatever, to be very strange, having grown up in an ultimately heathen culture, because the north of England was ultimately a heathen culture. So there were many things that seemed unusual to me.

On the other hand, I entered the State Historical Society Library and the main University Memorial Library, and I concluded that there's not a library outside the British Museum as good as those. The first seminar I took at Wisconsin, where there were eight or nine graduate students instead of one or two, was quite remarkable. And finally, I was able to get additional course work, which would have been impossible in England, in the areas of American history, statistical methods. I was able to continue my education in ways that would have been impossible. And, finally, I began to bond with other grad students in ways that they created lifelong friendships that are still with me. And so within three months, I sensed I was in an intellectual candy store. I overcame my frostiness and settled down to feeling very, very comfortable on the campus.

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