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Williams, Sir David Glyndwr Tudor (1930–2009), legal scholar and university administrator, was born on 22 October 1930 at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, St Peter, Carmarthen, the third child and second son of Tudor Williams (1890–1955) and his wife, Anne, or Annie, née Rees (1890–1980). The family were Welsh nonconformists; his father was a deacon, and the children were raised with strong moral principles, a fierce work ethic, and respect for education. After attending the grammar school, of which his father was headmaster, and following national service in the RAF, Williams went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, on an open scholarship in 1950, and graduated in 1954 with firsts in history and law.

His father's death in 1955 left Williams without financial support. Called to the bar by Lincoln's Inn in 1956, he lacked the wealth needed to practise. He was, however, awarded a generous Commonwealth Fund (Harkness Foundation) fellowship to study in the USA. Two years at Berkeley and Harvard gave him a love of America and Americans. In 1958 he returned to a lectureship in law at the University of Nottingham. Encouraged by the head of department, J. C. (John Cyril) Smith, he became secretary of the university staff club and a tutor in a hall of residence, and found that he enjoyed teaching and administration. He also met and, on 19 September 1959, married Sally Gillian Mary Cole, a 21-year-old youth employment officer, only child of Raymond James Cole.

In 1963 Williams moved to a lectureship at the University of Oxford and fellowship of Keble College. Keble's senior law fellow, Cecil Vere Davidge, wanted undergraduate oarsmen, whereas Williams wanted those with academic potential; some tension resulted. While in Oxford the Williamses had two children (Rhiannon, born in 1963, and Rhys, born in 1965). After less than four years Williams happily returned to Cambridge and a fellowship at his old college, Emmanuel, despite not having a university post. Quickly involved in the work of the college, he taught, took on the pastoral role of tutor in 1968 (the year in which his third child, Siân, was born), and became senior tutor and tutor for admissions in 1970. He was keen to raise academic standards and extend social diversity. Traditionally, potential undergraduates applied to Cambridge after A levels, in the course of an additional, seventh term in the sixth form at school. Williams, however, also made conditional offers to able, pre-A-level applicants from grammar schools. This made Emmanuel accessible to those who lacked resources for ‘seventh-term’ study at school. Other colleges' admissions tutors, initially sceptical, followed suit when they saw the rising quality of Emmanuel's undergraduates. He was also active in the wider university, serving on virtually every main university committee except the finance committee. His charm, clear thought, and judgement made him an effective and valued committee member, although in 1971 a senior colleague warned him that time spent on university politics could inhibit academic advancement.

Williams was, however, also an active scholar. He had already written two highly original studies of the interaction of law, politics, and society, analysing the impact of developments in law and policy on particular areas of state activity. Using historical and legal research, Not in the Public Interest: the Problem of Security in Democracy (1965) placed in its political and social contexts the growth of legislation to protect governmental secrecy and national security at the expense of the democratic need for people to know how the state was using its power. In Keeping the Peace: the Police and Public Order (1967), he tracked changes in legal and political attitudes to public protest over a century or more, shining a critical light on the tendency to use preventative powers to restrict democratic expression in public on the excuse of a risk of violent reactions. He also published articles on the nascent field of environmental law. This led to his first public service roles. He was appointed to the Clean Air Council (1971–9), the royal commission on environmental pollution (1976–83), and the commission on energy and the environment (1978–81). This allowed him to go to interesting places, meet interesting people, extend his archive of recondite knowledge, and develop ideas for further research. By the mid-1970s he had a reputation as a leading scholar of constitutional law. He was recruited to the JUSTICE/All Souls committee on administrative law, which produced an influential report on that growing field in 1988.

In 1976 the university recognized Williams's academic standing by appointing him reader in public law. This meant giving up his college administration, and left room for a new challenge. It came in 1980, when Wolfson College, Cambridge, appointed him as its president. Wolfson was then only fifteen years old, and unusual in taking only mature, mainly postgraduate, students, many of whom became friends of the family. He also attracted an international group of scholars to the fellowship who, together with many international visitors, fostered a varied and distinguished academic community. Settled family life, growing academic recognition (in 1983 he became Rouse Ball professor of English law), and a college role that he enjoyed made this a happy time. His personal warmth, humour, clear-sightedness, and international circle of friends made him an ideal ambassador for the college and the university.

In 1989 Williams became the first head of a non-traditional college to be vice-chancellor of the university. For 400 years selected college heads had served a short (usually two-year) term as vice-chancellor alongside their college duties, but the role was changing. Government was cutting support for higher education and increasing universities' accountability, necessitating more responsive organization. The Wass report in 1989 proposed streamlining the university's structures, inter alia by making the vice-chancellorship a full-time, executive post. Traditionalists feared that this would increase the university's power relative to the colleges. Williams nevertheless steered reforms through the university's tortuous decision-making process, managing to retain much of the university's traditional democracy. In 1991 he was invited to serve an extra year to oversee the transition, and was then a popular choice as the first full-time vice-chancellor from 1992.

Williams improved co-operation between colleges and university, spearheaded the university's first major fund-raising campaign for a century through the Cambridge Foundation, secured the creation of a single computer network serving all the colleges and departments of the university in the face of considerable resistance, and generally prepared the university for the twenty-first century. He was unfailingly polite, treating everyone alike from royalty to the most junior member of staff. He talked to people individually, respected their views, and could build consensus in private rather than grandstanding in public. Some people mistook this for weakness. It was one of his strengths. His tireless work as vice-chancellor restricted research opportunities. Nevertheless, he participated enthusiastically in conferences and gave lectures when he could. Honours showered down, including membership of the American Law Institute (1986), a knighthood (1991), QC honoris causa and foreign honorary membership of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (both 1994), deputy lieutenant of Cambridgeshire (1995), and honorary degrees from institutions in the UK, USA, Australia, and Canada. A founder member of what became the European Public Law Organization, he was its president at the time of his death. He was the only western European member of the jury for the Indira Gandhi prize for peace, disarmament and development from 1992 to 2002, and was one of the instigators and was later patron of the Canadian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

When Williams's term as vice-chancellor ended in 1996, he reverted to a professorship until he retired in 1998, continued to take part in fund-raising by the Cambridge Foundation until 2004, and maintained his public service as a member of the Senior Salaries Review Body (1998–2004). He used his experience and wisdom to support further and higher education in Wales. Trinity College, Carmarthen, made him an honorary fellow, and as president of the University of Wales, Swansea, from 2001 he helped it to achieve independence as Swansea University (Pryfisgol Abertawe) in 2007. He was delighted to be made its first chancellor, in which role he was indefatigable.

To the end of his life Williams served the public and the academic community in England and Wales, maintaining a punishing schedule. He followed the Welsh rugby union team devotedly. His marriage and family were the core of his life. He supported his successors and younger colleagues generously, often informally over a glass of wine, without inflicting unwanted advice. The endowment of an annual Sir David Williams lecture (the first delivered in 2001) gave him much pleasure. In 2008 he was one of the founding fellows of the Learned Society of Wales, which was formally launched in May 2010. On 6 September 2009, only three months after being diagnosed, he died of cancer, at home at Grange House, Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge, in the midst of his family. He had made friends round the world. With a light touch, deep consideration for others, wit, tact, and a complete lack of self-aggrandizement, he had lit up every room he entered (often aided by his passion for brightly coloured patchwork ties), and made everyone he met feel special. He had developed a new kind of historically contextualized public-law scholarship, inspired students, and been a successful leader of academic institutions. He had planned his funeral service, which took place in the chapel at Emmanuel College on 16 September attended by a great many family, friends, and admirers wanting to pay their respects to a much loved figure. A memorial service was held on 13 February 2010 at Great St Mary's, Cambridge. He was survived by his wife and children.

David Feldman


J. Beatson and W. Wade, ‘Sir David Williams QC, DL’, Freedom of expression and freedom of information: essays in honour of Sir David Williams, ed. J. Beatson and Y. Cripps (2000), 1–14 · J. Beatson, funeral service address, 16 Sept 2009, www.law.cam.ac.uk/faculty-resources/summary/sir-david-williams-funeral-address/6586, accessed on 3 Aug 2012 · The Times (22 Sept 2009); (30 Sept 2009); (5 Oct 2009) · The Guardian (23 Sept 2009) · Daily Telegraph (1 Oct 2009) · A. W. B. Simpson, Reflections on ‘The concept of law’ (2011), 64 · Burke, Peerage · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


L. Riley-Smith, oils, 2000, Emmanuel College, Cambridge; repro. in Beatson and Cripps, eds., Freedom of expression, frontispiece · S. Pavlenko, oils, 2004, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, University Combination Room; repro. in www.alumni.cam.ac.uk/uploads/File/CAMarticles/Easter2004/cam_2004_42_regularfeature.pdf · J. Hedgecoe, photographs, repro. in Beatson and Cripps, eds., Freedom of Expression · photographs, repro. in www.cpl.law.cam.ac.uk/past_activities/

Wealth at death  

£29,351: probate, 31 May 2011, CGPLA Eng. & Wales