Leslie Sykes university teacher and administrator, born November 11 1912; died February 27 2001
Academic with a major role in Leicester University's development

From his appointment as the first professor of French in 1947 until his retirement as deputy vice-chancellor in 1978, Leslie Sykes, who has died of lung cancer aged 88, played a major role in the development of the University College of Leicester into today's University of Leicester.

Although, by his own estimation, he was never a distinguished scholar, he was an outstanding teacher and administrator who built up the French department at Leicester to rival that at any comparable institution.

Born in Sheffield, he was the only son of a cabinet-maker who died when he was three months old. He and his mother went to live with her parents and he was brought up, in his own words, "as the only child of a grieving and exceedingly affectionate mother". After seven years' study at the Sheffield Pupil Teacher Centre, he won a major scholarship to Sheffield University, graduated with first-class honours in French and Latin in 1933, and obtained a diploma in education, with distinction in both theory and practice, in 1934.

The same year, he won a senior scholarship to Queen's College, Oxford, spending two years doing research under Gustave Rudler, and then two years in Paris, where he briefly became a member of the Communist party.

Returning to Sheffield as an assistant lecturer in 1938, he completed his thesis on the early 19th-century sentimental novelist Madame Cottin in 1940; it was published, in French, by Basil Blackwell in 1949.

After distinguished war service - the reluctant conscript of October 1940 rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel by the time of his discharge in April 1946 - he returned to his post in Sheffield before being appointed to the new chair of French at Leicester, at the age of 34. Immediately, he set about turning what was a small and undistinguished department into one of the country's best. Some measure of his success is given in the remarkable results obtained by Leicester students in the London external French degree in the 1950s.

Leicester was one of the first institutions in the country to insist that all modern language students should spend a whole session abroad in the country whose language they were studying. Over the next 20 years, the department grew and flourished under his careful guidance.

Not the least of his achievements was the skilful way in which he selected staff of exceptional calibre, many of whom went on to occupy eminent positions elsewhere. A tall, authoritative figure, and a man who stood for no nonsense, he was fiercely protective of his staff and students and concealed behind a gruff Yorkshire exterior a profound sensitivity and a mischievous sense of humour.

As his administrative skills came to be recognised, he found himself increasingly in demand outside the department, particularly as Leicester prepared for university status, which was achieved in 1957. In the early 1960s, he was one of a small group of academics and industrialists involved in the planning of Warwick University.

In 1969, he was elected pro-vice-chancellor and, a year later, the post of deputy vice-chancellor was created specifically for him, so that the best use could be made of his extensive experience at the highest level. Perhaps his most significant contribution at this stage lay in paving the way for the medical school, which opened its doors in 1975. He also continued to teach a final-year translation class in French for as long as was feasible. He retired in 1978, and subsequently gave a great deal of time and energy to voluntary and community work.

His intention of devoting himself to writing was never realised, but his long-standing interest in electoral reform bore fruit in 1990 with a small, privately published pamphlet, entitled Proportional Representation: Which System?, which attracted wide attention.

After his first marriage ended, he married in 1967 his second wife, Patricia, then a lecturer in the department. She survives him together with Helen, a daughter by his first marriage, and two granddaughters.

Peter Fawcett
Monday April 16, 2001