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David Ward was born in Manchester, England on July 8, 1938. He received BA (1959) and MA (1961) degrees from the University of Leeds then earned a Fulbright Travel award to the United States in 1960 and received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1963.
Ward taught for one year at Carlton University and two years at the University of British Columbia before returning to Wisconsin in 1966 as an assistant professor in geography. He became a full professor in 1971, served as chair of the geography department from 1974 to 1977, and held the Andrew Hill Clark Professorship of Geography.
Ward served as associate dean of the Graduate School from 1980 to 1987. In 1989 he became vice chancellor for academic affairs, and in 1991 he was also named provost, chief deputy to the chancellor. He became interim chancellor in January 1993, and was named chancellor in June 1993.
In January 2001 Ward stepped down as chancellor, and in September 2001 he became president of the American Council on Education.