Oxford Today editor Richard Lofthouse talks to Professor Louise Richardson about her first weeks as the newly-installed Vice-Chancellor
Professor Louise Richardson, the 272nd Vice-Chancellor, is an expert on terrorism and formerly the Principal of St Andrews
OT: What have your first impressions of Oxford been?
LR: On the downside I’d say it rains a lot, and this building is ghastly [the Wellington Square administrative block]; on the upside the people are fabulous. There is so much exciting work being done here; there’s so many creative, smart, interesting people, it’s going to be so much fun to get to know so many of them.
OT: I’ve heard it rains less in St Andrews than is widely believed…
LR: Believe it or not, St Andrews has its own microclimate, and you have the sight and smell and sound of the sea.
OT: What contrasts do you observe between St Andrews and Oxford?
LR: I’ve spent most of my professional career at Harvard, seven years at St Andrews, and now here at Oxford. Oxford has similarities with both. Ancient, beautiful, wonderful traditions; but Oxford is much more devolved than St Andrews. Harvard is more comparable in size and with a more complex structure, but lacking the Britishness and the tradition.
OT: Did you already know Oxford, the city?
LR: Not well, no… I still don’t. My first two Sundays, I’ve spent my time walking around the city, and I’ve organised a tour for myself…
Professor Richardson at a tea-time celebration in January to celebrate her arrival
OT: Have any particular haunts or tea shops captured your fancy yet?
LR: I’m working pretty hard, I haven’t any time to explore those yet!
OT: One of the first things you said, about your goal in the job, concerned defending Oxford’s preeminence in the world. Can you update on that?
LR: Any university is only as good as the academics and students it can attract. We need to ensure that we are attracting the best. My job is to create an environment in which they can do their best work. As long as we continue to get the best people and provide that environment, we will remain preeminent. We’re in an increasingly competitive world, in which some institutions have better resources than we do. We need to ensure that we remain competitive.
OT: There’s a lot of attention being paid to our admissions system from an equality and diversity point of view; and then there is a concern you have already expressed about taking on too much bureaucracy. What’s your view of these two items?
LR: TEF (The Teaching Excellence Framework) was part of the Conservative government manifesto, so I assume this is coming in. Certainly we welcome the emphasis on teaching, but are very worried about added bureaucracy; and are concerned about the accuracy of these matrices, just by dint of the disparity and differences between institutions. We are also slightly worried about conflating teaching with access and fees. These, it seems to me, are separate issues. On the access front, we do suffer from a reputation of exclusivity which does not match the reality I have encountered across the institution since I’ve arrived. It certainly does not match the genuine commitment I have encountered from people who are working hard to address this issue, to attract the best students, whatever background they come from. I have been deeply struck by the talent and the energy devoted to improving the socio-economic diversity of our student body.
Of the Rhodes statue, Professor Richardson commented, 'we have to confront our history, not excise it'
OT: You met the national press the other week. Were there any enduring themes?
LR: We discussed the TEF; there is a lot of press interest in Rhodes, that’s for sure. I think it’s a distraction from the much more important things we’ve got to do. It’s unfortunate that it’s occupied so much press space, rather than some of extraordinary things we’re doing here.
OT: How does the centre work with a college when something really big like this [the Rhodes Must Fall campaign] come up?
LR: Well we work together. While within Oxford these distinctions between colleges and the University are very clear, from outside the University these distinctions are not clear at all. The public does not distinguish between the college and the University. So we work closely together.
OT: Your predecessor was quite clear about the highly devolved nature of the University, and the limits on what the Vice-Chancellor can do and say. Do you feel unfairly hamstrung, because you have a college Governing Body decision about this statue. Ultimately there’s nothing, as Vice-Chancellor of the University, that you can do, right?
LR: In the sense that it’s the Governing Body of Oriel who will determine whether this statue stands or falls. Both the Chancellor and I have made our positions clear.
OT: In your inauguration speech, you talked about the need for uncomfortable ideas, and the need for students to formulate rational arguments against them. Were you saying, or suggesting, that the campaign to remove the Rhodes statue has been irrational?
LR: I wouldn’t describe it as an irrational campaign. I think it’s great when students decide to agitate about something other than their own self-interest. It’s healthy. It’s something we all did as students. I think it’s good to have a debate about our history. It’s good to be made aware of our past. It’s good to have that statue there to remind us of our link to Colonialism. But I think we have to confront our history, not excise it and pretend it didn’t exist. I’m also concerned, to be honest, because I worry that there’s an assumption of moral superiority that I wouldn’t be comfortable making, that people in the past engaged in these activities and held beliefs that we would repudiate today; but at the time they were quite commonly held, and so, there is this view that had we lived at that time we would not have held those beliefs – you know I’m not so sure; many of us might [have held the same beliefs]. Consider slavery in America. An absolutely reprehensible practice, but one that was very much a part of the fabric of life. Can we presume that had we lived then, we would have not shared and abided by the norms of people around us? It makes me wonder what future generations will think of us. Will they conclude that we are morally reprehensible, and should be excised from history, because of our wasteful use of the earth’s resources, when evidence of climate change was facing us; when we allowed children to be washed up on our shores without doing anything about it, as they desperately tried to escape wars? I’m not comfortable with an assumption that we are morally superior to previous, or indeed future, generations, that I think is implied in this movement.’
OT: There is a context which has arisen for the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which roots back to stuff that has been taught on campuses, not necessarily this one, but certainly in the States. When the Dixie flag was taken down by [the State of] South Carolina, Obama said, ‘this is great; this is not saying that Confederate soldiers were bad, but it’s nailing the fact that the cause they stood for was wrong.’ We could conclude from that that the statue is offensive.
LR: This is an issue upon which reasonable people can differ; of course! This is a University; we should air these differences. Oriel is listening to its students and that’s as it should be.
The procession leaving the Sheldonian, the new Vice-Chancellor now joining the Chancellor, Lord Patten
OT: You’re meeting alumni in London on February 3, which is lovely. It’s reached a point now where departments, colleges and the central development office ask alumni for money. Is that OK?
LR: I would not want alumni to think that we are only interested in them because of their money, though I certainly hope that we can continue the excellent work of the Oxford Thinking Campaign; we have a very, very long way to go to compete with Harvard’s $37 billion endowment. On the other hand, alumni can contribute in all kinds of other ways. I am already turning to alumni for advice in specialized areas. Alumni help just by being out in the community and talking about the University; to their friends and their schools, to break down misinformation that may be held about us; alumni really are our most important ambassadors. Alumni are a source of all kinds of support, tangible and intangible. Having said that we need to be more creative in creating sources of support from business, from industry, and from private philanthropy. Oxford I think is way out ahead in the UK in this regard, indeed in Europe; but we remain way behind our American competitors.
OT: You are also a Professor of Politics and International Relations; how will that affect your time at Oxford?
LR: It’s too early to say. I was able to do a little teaching at St Andrews. I would love to be able to do something like that here, but I won’t be able to commit to it for a while…I’m acutely conscious of the danger of becoming isolated in a role such as Vice-Chancellor. That was why I did some teaching at St Andrews, to keep my finger on the pulse of the institution. At Oxford I will hold open office hours. I’ll do this a few times a term. Anyone who wants to pop in and see me can do so. The first one is this week!
OT: That’s a real innovation that we will report!
LR: It’s a way of engaging with people I might otherwise not get to meet.
OT: Have you been in touch with Andrew Hamilton at all since you both took up your new Vice Chancellorships?
LR: He left me a very warm note of welcome. It’s funny you mention that - I was planning to jot him an email having just heard about all the snow that fell there this past weekend. We’ve both been pretty busy I guess!
OT. Thank you. Welcome to Oxford and good luck in your role!
The interview was conducted in Oxford on January 26, 2016, before the Governing Body of Oriel College announced that they would not be taking down the statue of Rhodes. (The full announcement is on Oriel’s website).
Images: Oxford University Images