Out with the Hamilton, in with the Richardson: Oxford’s new Vice Chancellor

Louise Richardson, chosen as the 272nd Vice-Chancellor of the University, comes to Oxford next year after a long life in academia and administration, having been at university in some form or another since 1977. Through her career she has shown an acumen for institutional leadership, accompanied by a willingness to publicly defend controversial opinions and policies, as well as a tendency to push for academic freedom.

One of seven children in an Irish Catholic family, her teenage years began with a period of unrest following the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre. In her book What Terrorists Want, she wrote that she would have quickly joined the IRA had her mother not prevented her.

She completed her undergraduate degree in History at Trinity College, Dublin, during which time she took a year to travel on scholarship to the University of California, Los Angeles. She later described her travels in America that year as a “totally liberating experience”.

Richardson returned to the United States after receiving her degree from Trinity College, Dublin, to pursue a M.A. and then Ph.D. in Government at Harvard University. She gained administrative experience from 2001 onwards, serving as Executive Dean at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

After 2001 and the the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda on the United States, Richardson’s academic profile as a scholar of counterterrorism and international security was elevated. Her 2006 What Terrorists Want argued that international terrorist movements, from the IRA to Al Qaeda, have more in common than is often perceived. The book contains pronounced criticism of the American response to the 2001 attacks and the idea of a “War on Terror”.

In 2009, 18 years after beginning her time at Harvard, Richardson was picked to head St Andrews, and became their first female Principal. Her time there’s been seen as successful overall. A current St. Andrews undergraduate told The Oxford Student: “I think most people are sad to see Louise Richardson go … She had big goals for putting St Andrews on the map academically and has succeeded with the university being ranked 3rd in the UK behind Cambridge and Oxford.”

Her leadership has not been without tension or controversy. She attracted attention after St Andrews raised tuition fees for non-Scottish UK students to £9,000 in 2012, the same year Oxford saw £9,000 fees introduced. In 2013 she provoked controversy by describing £9,000 per year as “very little to pay” for a St Andrews education, because it is “worth a great deal more” .

Richardson has also had a testy relationship with Scottish politics. During last year’s Scottish independence referendum, Richardson received an angry phonecall from then-SNP leader Alex Salmond, after her refusal to release a statement drafted by the SNP stating that research funding and other post-independence issues pertaining to Universities had been resolved. Also during the independence campaign, she responded to worries of an SNP minister “bullying” a St. Andrews academic over his statements on independence, urging all University staff to feel free to publicise their views on the issue.

Recently, she has expressed further distaste for the Scottish Government’s increasing control over education, as well as the coming Scottish Higher Education Governance Bill, she said: “I think there is an increasing level of regulation and … that it is detrimental to Universities.”

At St. Andrews, Richardson defended the University against a 2011 scandal involving funding received from governments and organisations in undemocratic Arab countries. “Universities should not be intimidated from looking for those sources overseas,” she said. She also remarked: “We need to be doing more, not less, research on and engagement with the Arab world.”

She was vocal in attacking norms in Scotland when she was not granted honorary membership at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, an honor that had been bestowed on all recent Principals of the University. Until 2014, the club did not admit women. Richardson said that members had waved their club ties in her face to draw attention to her lack of membership. She is widely seen as part of the impetus for the eventual opening of the Club.

Which precisely of her numerous accomplishments led to her nomination for Vice-Chancellor of Oxford is unclear. Oxford’s Chancellor, Lord Pattern of Barnes, said: “Her distinguished record both as an educational leader and as an outstanding scholar provides an excellent basis for her to lead Oxford in the coming years.”

Richardson’s statement upon her nomination expressed a desire to “advance Oxford’s pre-eminent global position in research, scholarship, and teaching.” Subject to approval by Congregation, she will take up the job on the first of January.

Photo/Oxford University