Tragic death of vice-chancellor is a blow to Queen’s University

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

The death of Professor Patrick Johnston brings to a tragic and sudden end one of Northern Ireland’s most glittering academic careers.

Professor Johnston was aged only 59 when he died after going for a cycle ride in Donegal. The cause of his death has not yet be revealed.

He had risen to the highest position, vice-chancellor, at Northern Ireland’s leading university, Queen’s in Belfast.

Before that he had set up the Cancer Research and Cell Biology in the city and, as the tributes show, he developed an international reputation in the field.

Dr Johnston, who had worked in the United States in the 1980s, later became the dean of medicine at Queen’s, before moving up to vice-chancellor.

His sudden death is a blow to Queen’s University, which has been achieving notable successes in fields such as cyber security (Professor Johnston last year gave Prince Charles a tour of a cutting edge cyber centre in the Titanic Quarter).

The university now faces the unwelcome challenge of finding a world-class replacement to its late leader.

This is a difficult time for universities in general, but Northern Ireland in particular – if Stormont is resumed it needs to debate whether it has pursued the correct approach in trying to keep fees so low for local students.

Some critics have said that too much university energy now needs to be spent on chasing income from foreign students. Queen’s over recent years has attracted some excellent academics but it has also lost some of them.

Even so, the university has some highly regarded departments – including medicine – that are greatly in demand among school leavers, and places for which are heavily over-subscribed.

Northern Ireland has many fine schools (such as St Columb’s College in Londonderry, where Patrick Johnston was once a pupil) and its work force is admired by employers.

The Province has potential as highly-skilled economy if we can build on the legacy of Professor Johnston.