Obituary: love of economics, agriculture

Economist Bruce Ross. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
Economist Bruce Ross. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED


Distinguished agricultural economist, former director-general of agriculture and first vice-chancellor of Lincoln University, Emeritus Prof Bruce Jerome Ross, who died in Wellington on October 4 aged 85, was a Dunedin son, born and bred.

The son of eminent University of Otago historian Prof Angus Ross and the great-nephew of Columba College’s first principal, Frances Ross, Bruce Ross attended Arthur Street Primary School, Otago Boys’ High School and, for a year, the Otago University, where he completed the science prerequisites then needed for admission to a Lincoln College degree.

If fate had decreed otherwise, his Otago credentials might also have extended to include farmer in the Catlins.

His keen first ambition in life was to be a farmer and, as a young man, he applied for several Lands and Survey Department farm ballots. He set his heart particularly on a block available in South Otago near the Catlins but did not win it.

Some years later, after he had abandoned the idea of farm ownership and was making his way in the academic world on the staff at Lincoln, a chap came into his office and asked if any jobs were available.

The visitor said he had been farming for a few years, had developed his land as far as he could, became bored, had taken up university study and was now looking for work as a researcher with a group like the agricultural economics research unit, where Prof Ross had started on the Lincoln staff. It unfolded he was the one who had won the coveted Catlins farm.

Ballot loss aside, other forces helped propel Prof Ross towards academia, particularly his father’s influence and the academic household in which he grew up.

Dr Angus Ross rose to be professor of history at Otago University and eventually his son also became a professor, when he was appointed to the chair in agricultural economics at Lincoln in 1970. The pair were believed to be the first father-and-son professorial combination in New Zealand.

Bruce Ross arrived at Lincoln College as a bachelor of agricultural science student in 1959, after having completed his Otago year and practical farming experience on properties at Heriot, Waipiata and Lauder. At Lincoln he found the economics papers particularly appealing. A college magazine of the time described him as a "brilliant economist".

He graduated BAgrSc in 1962, the same year his wife-to-be, Gill Wilkie, completed her nursing registration in Christchurch. The couple first met in 1959 and married in 1963. Within six weeks, they flew to Malaya, where Prof Ross had been appointed to a position at the University of Malaya, in Kuala Lumpur, to teach agricultural economics and farm management.

The couple spent the first three years of their married life there, and working abroad fostered his emerging interest in the economic development of overseas countries.

"Bruce had an admirable understanding and generosity towards humanity and I saw this clearly expressed during our time in Malaya," his wife said.

"It remained a trait throughout his life and I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent so many years of my life with him."

Returning to Lincoln from Malaya, he completed a master of agricultural science degree with first-class honours in economic theory, awarded in May 1966.

Appointment followed as a research economist with the agricultural and economics research unit headed by Prof Bryan Philpott. Within a short time, Prof Ross was at the heart of New Zealand’s most significant post-World War 2 economic summit, the National Development Conference of 1968-69.

Participation in the conference by Prof Philpott and his protege established Lincoln as a major source of economic expertise in national affairs.

As a research economist, Prof Ross had helped Prof Philpott in his seminal work of the time, the construction of a 15-sector, inter-industry, input-output model for projecting and planning the New Zealand economy.

The conference used this Lincoln model to test economic assumptions and projections and, overall, the contributions of the pair were an important part of this landmark gathering.

Prof Ross always acknowledged involvement in that conference as his first big career breakthrough. He was only 30, but as an economist he had come to the attention of leading figures of the day such as the Reserve Bank governor, the secretary to The Treasury and the Bankers’ Association chief executive.

Lincoln University vice-chancellor Prof Bruce Ross.
Lincoln University vice-chancellor Prof Bruce Ross.
Ironically, through the conference, Lincoln came close to losing Prof Ross as he was offered the directorship of the Monetary and Economic Council. However, an equally plum position, the professorial chair in agricultural economics at Lincoln, also opened up.

Prof Ross was appointed and, in December 1970, aged just 32, he became the youngest professor at Lincoln and probably in New Zealand.

To 1983, Prof Ross was closely involved with the primary production committee of the National Research Advisory Council; consultancy work with The Treasury; membership of the economic monitoring group of the New Zealand Planning Council; chairmanship of the national committee on agricultural economics research; and the presidency of the Association of University Teachers of New Zealand.

In 1982, Lincoln College’s principal, Sir James Stewart, signalled his pending retirement and Prof Ross was well positioned to bid for the job. At the same time, he received an invitation from the OECD to lead the trade analysis division of its agricultural directorate in Paris. He had already worked for the OECD as a consultant and the offer was too tempting to resist.

Taking leave-of-absence from Lincoln, Prof Ross, wife Gill and their children, Catherine and Angus, went to Paris for two years. He described his time with the OECD as the highlight of his research career as an economist.

In Paris, he was involved with the global economy, modelling the effects of changes internationally in levels of support and protection for agriculture.

His work contributed to the breakthrough of having agriculture included on the agenda of the Uruguay round of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt) negotiations. This was the first time agriculture had been included on the Gatt agenda.

By that move, Prof Ross was a link in the chain which ultimately led to an annual benefit to the New Zealand economy of more than $1 billion.

While in France, his appointment as principal of Lincoln College was announced and he took up the post in 1985 when he returned to New Zealand.

He was immediately confronted with what he described as "huge changes going on". A national downturn in agriculture was expressed at Lincoln in a dramatic drop in agricultural course enrolments.

Lincoln had to be quick on its feet to survive, but under his leadership it maintained its equilibrium, helped by a rapid growth in commerce degree enrolments, energetic new marketing initiatives, and adoption of a policy of internationalisation.

By the end of the 1980s Lincoln’s enrolments exceeded 2000 for the first time, and roll growth continued into the 1990s, reaching 3000 and more.

The period 1985-90 was a time of huge reforms within education and Prof Ross was among those who believed the climate was right for Lincoln College, which was still a constituent college of the University of Canterbury, to become an independent university in its own right.

Government and other agencies either supported or opposed the notion, but Prof Ross, as principal of Lincoln College, and Sir Allan Wright, as chairman of the Lincoln College council, mounted a strenuous campaign of public and alumni support and political advocacy for autonomy.

Eventually, a government working group on post-compulsory education and training agreed Lincoln College should be granted independent status as Lincoln University.

Helping to guide Lincoln College to maturity as an autonomous university ranks as Prof Ross’ finest administrative achievement, although with characteristic self-effacement he dismissed his role with the comment: "It was a cause whose time had come."

From being principal of Lincoln College, Prof Ross became vice-chancellor of Lincoln University and continued in that role until 1996 when he accepted appointment as director-general of agriculture, for the then Ministry of Agriculture.

Leaving Lincoln was a wrench, but again with typical modesty he said that while the university was in good heart and heading in a strong strategic direction, there were "advantages to be gained for some change and rejuvenation of its leadership. The case for my moving on now is quite strong".

His appointment to the ministry thrust him again into a significant transitional period for a nationally important institution. In addition to being director-general, he was acting secretary of forestry and subsequently the two bodies, agriculture and forestry, were combined under his leadership to form the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in 1998.

Prof Ross retired as director-general in April 2001. In retirement he continued to serve on national committees such as the NZ dairy core database access panel and the biological sciences peer review panel in the performance-based research fund quality assessment body.

In the 2002 New Year Honours he was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to agriculture. Five years later he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the New Zealand Association of Economists, which acknowledged his long career as a research economist, policy adviser and chief executive.

In 2009 he was awarded Lincoln University’s Bledisloe Medal, for career contributions advancing New Zealand’s interests. He also received an appointment as an honorary fellow of Victoria University’s School of Government.

His services to Lincoln University were given special recognition last year when the commerce building was renamed the Ross Building.

Prof Ross is survived by his wife and two children. — Ian Collins, Lincoln University.