Kenneth Wilson - in memoriam

The Rev Dr Kenneth B Wilson OBE, who died on 12 January 2017, aged 79, was Principal of Westminster College from 1980 to 1996.

A distinguished philosopher and theologian, he brought to the College a passion for education evident to both staff and students; believing, in the words of Steve Phillipson (Vice Principal, 1981–89), that "all institutions of education – from primary school to university – should essentially be vibrant learning communities, places that ceaselessly open up new horizons, that fire the imagination and that provide students with vital tools for thinking and acting responsibly and creatively".

Under his leadership, Westminster became "more sure of its distinctiveness, purpose and direction of travel… and, together with the Governing Body and senior colleagues, Kenneth put all his energies until his retirement into keeping the ship healthily afloat, and working on safeguarding its future".

Formative years

Kenneth was born in Bangor, then Caernarvonshire. His parents were English but this county of birth gave Kenneth a great love of things Welsh, particularly Snowdonia, where he walked and climbed, the work of several poets, especially R.S.Thomas, and rugby.

Throughout his life, Kenneth spoke warmly of his own education - at Hillgrove in Bangor, an eccentric and enlightened school led by Claude Chapman; and then Kingswood in Bath, the Methodist boarding school, where the headmaster was A.B.Sackett, a most remarkable man. Each encouraged a great sense of curiosity, leading to a lifelong interest in ideas of every kind – scientific, literary, philosophical, musical, and political.

In 1957 Kenneth went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he read History and then Divinity. While there he decided to candidate for the Methodist ministry, and after studying at Didsbury College, Bristol and a probationary appointment at Hinde Street Methodist Church in London, he was ordained in 1966. He subsequently completed an MLitt on ‘The Justification of Moral Judgements’ and a PhD on ‘The Search for System in Contemporary Theology’, both at the University of Bristol.

Prior to becoming Principal at Westminster, Kenneth returned to Kingswood School as assistant chaplain and then Chaplain, and in 1973 he became Tutor in Philosophy and Ethics at Wesley College, Bristol, and part-time lecturer at Bristol University.

Meeting the challenge of Higher Education in flux

Kenneth arrived at Westminster College at a time of much change in Higher Education, as well as Teacher Education itself. As Steve Phillipson recalls ‘leading a small college through it all successfully required vision, drive, political canny-ness, and a good dose of dogged determination; qualities that Kenneth brought in abundance’.

Dr Martin Groves (Chaplain, 1989-2000) amply echoes the point. Kenneth, he says, "arrived to lead an institution that still had all the hallmarks of a small, traditional, residential, church, teacher training college. By the time he left, the institution had grown almost tenfold, was primarily non-residential and organised by a recognisably modern management structure. Kenneth’s vision, oversight and care of the college throughout these years was a great achievement. Not many other universities and colleges had Principals of sufficient vision, calibre and resilience to see their institutions through the whole of this period of growth, change and managerial revolution".

Creating an open community

As both would agree though, Kenneth’s achievement was not simply that the college survived and grew, but that it also became a much more open, outward-looking community. Steve Phillipson refers to this as "Kenneth’s finest contribution" – a move from a "tightly knit, comfortable, but somewhat isolated community to one that was more permeable, more open to the outward world." He describes "encouragement of international exchanges and links, fostering the creation of specialist centres, facilitating the inviting of interesting people of the day such as Iris Murdoch and Shirley Williams to give open guest lectures and to engage in conversation with students and staff, and constant promotion of discussion and open dialogue on burning issues of the day".

The creation of a centre for children’s literature was a notable example of Kenneth’s ability to seize the opportunity created by a new introduction. Aidan Chambers (award winning children’s author) recalls how this came about when he was invited to dinner by Kenneth’s wife, Jennifer, after they had met on an in-service course on children’s books:

"During dinner the conversation naturally turned to children’s books and education. I asked Kenneth what Westminster did about children’s books. He said, very little because there was no one on the staff who had sufficient knowledge of the books. I rather rudely said that that wasn’t good enough, that a working knowledge of the books and of how to bring them to children seemed to me to be essential to the proper training of teachers. With the generosity of spirit and the quickness of mind and decisiveness I came to admire, Kenneth suggested I come to College one day a week for a term, he’d arrange for me to work with some groups of students, and at the end of the term I’d outline for him what I thought should and could be done.

"The visit lasted not one term but ten years. Another admirable feature of Kenneth’s nature was his willingness to delegate, his skill at choosing the right people for the task, and then letting them get on with as much imagination and inventiveness as they possessed, as long as they were practical in their application and were determined on the improvement in the education of the students. It was to the long-standing Head of English, the widely liked Gordon Dennis, that he delegated me.

"The courses that were quickly evolved included a full year of one-day-a-week studies in children’s books for the students specialising in English; and supplementary fifteen-week courses for students majoring in other subjects. Very soon, the work extended to in-service work. Thursday morning and afternoon were student times. In the evening up to twenty-five teachers from Oxfordshire Primary schools came together for a one-year, professionally credited course.

"I shall always be grateful for what Kenneth gave me professionally and privately and proud of what we achieved together."

Kenneth’s wider educational involvement also contributed. Steve Phillipson says that "Kenneth’s knowledge, understanding and educational vision ensured that he was invited to be a member of numerous important national panels, and working parties. The nature and profile of the College benefitted greatly from this creative external involvement and contribution."

Amongst others, Kenneth was a Council member for CNAA 1982-92; and for the Institute of Education, London 1991-96 (and chaired the latter 1993-95). Within Oxford University, he greatly assisted in the planning of the Ian Ramsey Centre intended to encourage theological engagement with the sciences, now part of the University Theology Department, and he sat on its Committee 1985-99.

He was also involved with the Science and Religion Forum, at national and international levels, and chaired it 1979-81 and 2009-12. He fostered connections with several US Universities with a Methodist foundation, and received Honorary Degrees from Lycoming College, US (Hon DTh, 1994) and High Point University, US (Hon DLL, 1995). And in 1993, Kenneth’s services to education were recognised when he was awarded an OBE.

Excellence

Creation of an increasingly outward-looking institution, able to seize opportunity, was a key means by which Kenneth promoted the pursuit both of curiosity and of excellence. When he arrived at Westminster, degrees were validated by CNAA, after Oxford University Institute of Education had ended validation in 1981. By 1992, a new much fuller relationship with the University had been formed: students were entitled to become members of the Oxford University Student Union and to attend University lectures; exams were marked by the University; graduation was presided over by the Vice Chancellor in the Sheldonian; and degree certificates included the coats of arms of both Westminster College and Oxford University.

Lord Watson (Chair of Governors, 1989 – 94) says: "Kenneth and I knew each other for many years and became firm friends. My admiration for him grew steadily as did my affection born of his wisdom and warmth. The pastor in Kenneth was totally committed to helping individuals realise their full potential – often surprising themselves. There was nothing sentimental or sloppy in his approach. He believed in excellence and the potential of every individual to achieve excellence – by making the right, wise and courageous decisions. He also believed in hard work as his own life vividly demonstrated.

"Westminster’s task was to train people for the teaching profession and he ensured that the college provided excellence in teaching and guidance to all its students. But his ambition was not only to enable students to master the demands of teaching. He wanted them also to share his reverence for knowledge and his enthusiasm to search out the new. At our best what makes us human and why? These were always his questions.

"His pursuit of excellence for the College and all who taught and studied there led us to seek a deeper relationship with Oxford University. The then University Chancellor, Roy Jenkins, visited in September 1991 to present Westminster’s first honorary degrees, an event that evidenced clearly his admiration for the standards achieved by the College under Kenneth’s stewardship. And from 1992, Oxford University formally validated our degrees, with all that meant for the individuals concerned and the College as an institution."

And, as he notes, for Kenneth, the Methodist context was always important: "Kenneth was a scholar and an educationalist. We were both at Kingswood and cherished the connection between the Wesleys and Oxford. Deep down we were certain they would have been pleased by what had been achieved".

Inspirational teacher and colleague

A key aspect of Kenneth’s leadership was his own ability to inspire students and colleagues through teaching and conversation.

Kenneth taught on the BA Theology course. Rev Dr Ralph Waller (Chaplain, 1981-88) explains that: "Kenneth was one of the very few Principals of colleges the size of Westminster, who still taught students. Although sometimes he bewildered them, the students loved him, always found his lectures stimulating, and saw that he was constantly opening up new areas of interest for them".

Dr Rob Fisher, a student on this course who later became a member of College staff, recalls his experience as a student in 1984. "At one minute to nine, the door opens and ‘The Principal’ breezes in. He has no books, no notes, no aids of any kind…. and proceeds to engage us for the next fifty minutes with an enthusiasm, an honesty and a passion which is unlike anything we have ever experienced before." He goes on to say that Kenneth "joyfully opened my mind to all the glorious possibilities of what we can achieve when we blend the arts, the various disciplines, literature, music and science.

"But it is not only what he did; it was the way he did it. 

"He was a gentle teacher but intellectual honesty and integrity were always the underpinnings of everything he did. There were no easy answers; as a partner in dialogue he would stretch you, challenge you, make you commit to considering all sorts of options and possibilities. And in return he was always appreciative when you did the same."

Kenneth and Jennifer were faithful supporters of the chapel and its related activities. In Ralph Waller’s words: "Kenneth was a great encourager of all his colleagues, especially the younger ones. Although a minister himself he never wanted to interfere in the role of the chaplain, but always found the resources I needed to do the job, such as providing the financial support for me to take students on retreat each year to a Benedictine Abbey in France. It was Kenneth who also encouraged me to complete my doctorate which, without his support, could so easily have ended up in the graveyard of unfinished PhDs."

And Aidan Chambers recalls the richness of conversation during the ten years that he led the Centre for Children’s Literature: "We always ended up talking about what we were reading, discussing ideas, sharing current concerns and interests and other work we were planning, doing or reflecting on after the event. The main thing I remember and value of my companionship with Kenneth was the contact with his mind, his intellectual humour, his boundless curiosity about ideas of every kind, and always in relation to human nature, to life as it is lived, experienced, and could be and should be lived.

"I saw all this in action most vividly and impressively when at my suggestion we went to Israel together in the 1980s, before the onset of the intifadas. I had been there twice before. I felt that Kenneth ought to see the Holy Land. My contacts were with the Social Democratic kibbutzim in the north of Israel, who ran their own college for the training of teachers. I had worked with the teachers and was impressed by the standard of their education and their training. We could learn a lot from it.

"From the moment we arrived people took to Kenneth instantly. His evident and genuine curiosity, his humane tolerance, his intellectual honesty, his immediate grasp of the political, cultural and religious currents and conflicts, his gift for listening, for asking the right questions, his good manners and diplomatic sociability, his linguistic skill, and his sense of humour endeared him to even the most crusty and assertive people we met. We travelled together all over the north of the country, slept in kibbutzim – once having to share a small room for a hot and bat-ridden night during which neither of us slept much but talked a lot about what might be done with the College based on what we were finding."

‘Retirement’ – and a chance to write

Kenneth retired from Westminster in 1996. His passion for education, for the examined life, and for mutual encouragement and conversation never left him. From 1996 to 2001 he was Director of Research at The Queen's Foundation, Birmingham; and subsequently he was Visiting Research Fellow at Canterbury Christchurch University 2005-11, and at Chichester University 2004–11, before being Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values in the School of Education, University of Birmingham 2012-15. He was on the Council of Sarum College 2001-07, Chair of the Ammerdown Trust 2008-13, and a governor at both Kingswood and The Leys School. As he had hoped, he also found increasing time to write, with six of the eleven books that he authored, co-authored or edited being published in the years 2000-15.

Kenneth is survived by his wife, Jennifer, and three children, Sarah, Mark and Vanessa.

2018