In Memoriam: Howard Petch

Petch in full regalia, 1977. Photo: UVic Archives.

President, University of Victoria — 1975 to 1990

It is with great sadness that the university community marks the passing of Dr. Howard Petch, former President of the University of Victoria, on November 26 at the age of 93. Petch was the university’s fourth President, and is well-remembered for his 15 years in office guiding the campus through an era of immense change, and prioritizing programs and values that have become the defining characteristics of UVic today. During his term, the UVic student body nearly doubled, from 7,400 to 13,000, with a corresponding transformation of the teaching and research environments both on and off campus.

A distinguished nuclear physicist and farsighted advocate for materials science—a field which has only recently begun to show its transformative potential in full—Petch’s turn to academic leadership was an enormous boon to UVic. Historian Peter L. Smith wrote that Petch, “was a charmingly shy man . . . honest, razor-sharp, plain-speaking. No guile, no rhetoric, no frills.”

Petch “showed unusual strength and composure. Having chosen to live at first in the student residences on campus, he was ideally placed to sense the concerns of the student body and to gauge the general mood of the university,” Smith added. “Unpretentious in manner, highly visible and readily accessible, he displayed a simple but dignified style of leadership.”

“Under his leadership,” notes current UVic President Jamie Cassels, “UVic went through a period of extraordinary transformation, and Howard’s influence and impact are palpable in so many areas of our university’s distinctive characteristics.”

Viewing off-campus learning as a valuable supplement to the academic curricula, Petch championed the cause of co-operative education, ensuring that UVic became an early adopter—the second university in Canada to found a co-op program—and national leader, helping UVic students participate in dynamic learning and building their careers at the same time.

Petch also helped define the university’s athletic program, supporting the development of a select group of sports programs in which UVic could pursue and achieve excellence, in events with low barriers to engagement and participation.

The parameters for Vikes athletics were in large part set by Petch’s strong conviction that our athletes were student-athletes—exemplifying excellence in that they were expected to excel both in their academic pursuits and athletic fields. Sport success, no matter the platform, would not come at the cost of academic success as a student.

Ken Shields, now famous for coaching seven consecutive men’s national basketball championships for the Vikes, recalls the 1978 report on athletics Petch commissioned. “Without his initiative and support, athletics wouldn’t have had a chance to grow like it did at UVic. He was absolutely and completely on board—behind it from the day the report was delivered.”

Through this strategic focus, UVic achieved unparalleled success in athletics, winning 25 national championships during his presidency. Ever observant to the ways an energetic athletics program on campus enriches the student experience, Petch also became a key proponent of the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria.

As an academic leader, Petch was widely praised for cultivating trust and accountability—a stabilizing influence which helped restore the university’s collegial campus environment after a period of fractious turmoil in the early 1970s. In Reaching Upward and Outward, the historian Ian MacPherson noted that these shifts, coupled with improvements in procedures for appointments, tenure and promotion, “made possible a remarkable expansionist phase in UVic’s history.”

That expansion included the establishment of professional schools in nursing, child care, social work, business and law, as well as a new Faculty of Engineering. The era also saw improvements in community-university engagement, locally and globally, that were marked by Petch’s support and advocacy. These included a First Nations teacher education program in Hazelton, BC, becoming one of the first Canadian universities to establish formal relations with a Chinese university, the founding of UVic’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, research partnerships that sent UVic physicists and astronomers to the world’s leading research facilities, and smaller initiatives that brought the Greater Victoria community together, such as Finnerty Gardens—which remained close to Petch’s heart throughout his life.

Petch was also sympathetic to emerging concerns about gender equity. With the leadership presence of Norma Mickelson, who becamethe first female academic dean in Canada when she was selected to lead the Faculty of Education in 1975, Petch recognized that the academy was changing—and rapidly. In the third year of Petch’s term, of the 417 full-time faculty at UVic, only 52 were women. Ten years later, in 1987, UVic had launched a minor in Women’s Studies, and appointed one of the first tenure-track professors in Canada in the developing field. And in 1990, 132 women were full-time faculty, with new tenure-track hires almost evenly split by gender.

Despite periods of government cutbacks, the built environment on campus grew dramatically during Petch’s presidency—including construction of the University Centre, McKinnon, the Phoenix and Fine Arts buildings, a new science and engineering building, a building for the Faculty of Law and the Interfaith Chapel—without overshadowing the natural beauty of the well-treed campus.

“Howard was the right man in the right place at the right time,” recalls Trevor Matthews, who served as Vice-President Administration throughout Petch’s presidency.“He was guided by strong principles. He believed in the truth, freedom of the press, freedom of expression, academic freedom, in minorities, and that women had not been given fair opportunities.”

“It was a privilege to be involved and a privilege to work for someone who had both feet on the ground.”

Matthews’ sentiments are echoed across the university. “For many of us, Howard was a mentor and a role model,” says President Cassels. “He left behind an incredible legacy that has had a profound influence on the university UVic has become. The positive impact of his leadership on UVic during its formative years will be remembered for generations to come.” 

The university flag will be lowered on Sunday, Dec. 16.

A public service and celebration of life will be held on Sunday, Dec. 16 from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Arbutus and Queenswood rooms of Cadboro Commons. Parking is available in Lot 5 off Sinclair Road.

Condolences may also be offered online. Read the obituary in the Times Colonist.


In this story

Keywords: in memoriam, history

People: Howard Petch

Publication: The Ring

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