Professor Chris Higgins, who has been vice chancellor at Durham for seven years, will step down on September 30 this year.
The university says it has already begun a search for his replacement.
Prof Higgins said: “I will, of course, be very sad at leaving the university I love, and friends and colleagues I admire. However, the timing is right.
“The university and its colleges are probably in the best shape it has ever been, academically and financially, providing a strong platform for my successor to take the them to even greater heights.
“I have been in my role for seven years, longer than average for a vice-chancellor, and after this period, any forward-looking organisation needs an injection of new ideas and energy from the top.” Chair of Durham University Council, Robert Gillespie, thanked Prof Higgins for his work and the way he was making his announcement now so that the institution has time to find his successor before the next academic year.
Mr Gillespie said: “Professor Chris Higgins informed me some months ago of his desire to retire from his role as vice-chancellor and warden of Durham University not later than his 60th birthday in June 2015.
“We discussed how this could best be achieved in a way that causes the least disruption to the university.
“I have therefore concluded that now is the right time to start the process of recruiting a new vice-chancellor. We will therefore start the process immediately.
“In preparation for the transition, Chris will relinquish all his executive responsibilities with effect from September 30 and he will remain as vice-chancellor emeritus until his successor is appointed and a successful handover completed.
“Durham has been at the heart of Chris’ life since arriving as an undergraduate in 1973 and nobody who has ever met him can be in any doubt as to his love of and pride in the university.
“As vice chancellor, Chris has driven the university forward over the last seven years and will leave us well placed to continue to build on our long history of scholarship and learning.”
Until a replacement is found, Prof Higgins will continue to develop the university’s external relationships, continue to act in an ambassadorial role, and be available to advise the university’s council and senate.
In the event that the recruitment process has not been completed by October 1 deputy vice-chancellor Professor Ray Hudson will take charge on an acting basis, before returning to his research activities once a new vice chancellor is found.
Prof Higgins is the second vice chancellor at a North East university to announce his retirement in less than a month.
Professor Peter Fidler, vice chancellor at the University of Sunderland announced he will retire in 2016.