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Class of 2021: University honours one of its own

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Published on 02 December 2021

Shirley Atkinson
Shirley Atkinson

Former Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive of the University of Sunderland, Shirley Atkinson OBE, today received an Honorary Doctorate for Business Administration. 

Shirley's honour comes as hundreds of students are graduating from the University at the Stadium of Light this week.       

The honorary degree was in recognition of Shirley’s outstanding service to the institution and the national work she did – and still does – to promote the transformative power of higher education in addressing inequality and delivering social justice.

Shirley, now an emeritus professor, spent 10 years at the University – six as deputy vice-chancellor and four as vice-chancellor and chief executive. During her career, Shirley lobbied relentlessly on the challenges faced by hard-to-reach communities, for example, taking politicians to task for abolishing maintenance grants at the beginning of the last decade.

Shirley’s drive to help widen participation in higher education was also recognised in 2019, when she was made an OBE in the New Year Honours.

During her time at the University, Shirley mobilised the Sunderland business community to create a new Centre for Enterprise and Innovation. The centre, on the University’s City campus, is an open-door for employers, graduates, and the wider community to access institutional research expertise and facilities.

Shirley provided leadership on the Sunderland cultural front too, helping to maximise public access to the arts. This was driven by her belief that the arts and culture are powerful catalysts for regeneration.

During her time, Shirley also oversaw significant investment in the University’s Sciences Complex and the opening of the School of Nursing. She also led the development the University Technical College in South West Durham, and both the University of Sunderland in London and the Hong Kong campus.

One of Shirley’s proudest achievements was initiating, and leading on, the successful bid to open a School of Medicine at the University.

On receiving her honorary degree, Shirley said: “I have been hugely lucky to have worked throughout my career with organisations and individuals who care deeply about public service, social justice and a fairer more equitable society.

“I felt greatly honoured when I was appointed to the University both as Deputy and then as Vice-Chancellor. None of the achievements you have heard about are mine alone. They belong to the whole university community – the staff, the students, and the Board of Governors – who supported me wholeheartedly as we embarked on those brave new ventures.

“I was saddened to have to leave as I loved every moment of being the Vice-Chancellor. But I was of course delighted when the Board appointed Sir David as my successor, and I have watched the University go from strength-to-strength, whilst maintaining its unique spirit of community and collaboration.

“The University of Sunderland is a very special place, and it was my honour and pleasure to work here.”

Currently, Shirley is Chair of the Members at the Beacon of Light School, Chair of the North EastSTEM Foundation Charity, and a Group Board member of NCG’s7 colleges of further education.

University of Sunderland’s Vice Chancellor and Chief Executive, Sir David Bell, said: “As I had known Shirley for many years previously, it was a great honour and privilege to succeed her as vice-chancellor at the University of Sunderland. I knew though that I was going to be standing on the shoulders of a giant, and someone who had positioned the institution in a perfect place for future growth and development.

“Everything we have achieved in recent years has its roots in the leadership that Shirley provided. Therefore, it is only right and proper that we recognise her outstanding contribution today.”

John Mowbray, Chair of the Board of Governors at the University of Sunderland, said: "Shirley really deserves the honour for everything she's done, not just for the University of Sunderland but for universities nationally and also for the work she did for Sunderland as a city.

"She was always very interested and very passionate about people and places and wanted to make sure everybody has the opportunity to get a good education regardless of their background. She was a champion of that in Sunderland but nationally as well.

"It's fabulous to have her back for the day and to give her the recognition for being a truly wonderful Vice Chancellor of the University of Sunderland."

 

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