ALEXANDER, Robert Edward, C.M.G.
The son of Joseph and Frances Alexander, Robert was born in County Donegal, Ireland, and was educated at the Royal Academical Institution, and the Royal College of Science, Belfast. Prior to his coming to New Zealand, he farmed his father's property at Imlick, near Londonderry. He was appointed to the post of Director of Lincoln College in 1909, following the resignation of William Lowrie who had accepted the position of Director of Agriculture in Western Australia. Under Lowrie's administration the college had greatly improved in efficiency and in public esteem. In 1909 there were about 50 students in residence.
Alexander's views as to the primary functions of the college were in line with those of the Board of Governors–its task was to train men for practical farming. Provision for those who might be undertaking research or advisory work was regarded as of secondary importance. Prior to 1914 these latter services were practically nonexistent in New Zealand, but during the war and the immediate post-war period there was an increasing awareness of the need to expand these services and to provide the appropriate training for the men who would have to staff them. Alexander, however, displayed little sympathy with these new attitudes and showed a great reluctance to modify in any way the course of training at Lincoln to assist those students who had elected to take degrees. During the early 1920s there was a considerable amount of controversy as to the form and content of agricultural education, but here again Alexander made few positive contributions.
After 25 years' service as Director, Alexander resigned in 1936 following a dispute with the Board of Governors which hinged partly on personal issues and partly on the dissatisfaction on the part of the board with the way the college as a whole was functioning. He died in Christchurch on 20 November 1946.
Despite the criticism of his seemingly rather narrow range of vision, it must be noted that many of the men trained at the college under Alexander form the nucleus of the present organisation of agriculture research and extension work in New Zealand. He had a good knowledge of accepted methods of farm management, though his conservative outlook in later years hindered the development of the college farm. He was a sound judge of sheep, but was much less successful with the college dairy herd. Although little interested in plant breeding himself, he always gave full support for Hilgendorf's work in this field.
In 1906, at Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Alexander married Alice McRae, daughter of Thomas McKinley, by whom he had two sons and two daughters.
by Patrick Russell Stephens, M.A., Economics Section, Department of Agriculture, Wellington.
- Life and Work at Canterbury Agricultural College, Blair, I. D. (1956)
- The Development of Agricultural Education in New Zealand, Wild, L. J. (1952)
- The Press (Christchurch), 21 Nov 1946 (Obit).