“I wish we were appreciated more” – Vice Chancellor Dame Louise Richardson on Leaving Oxford

Prior to her departure from the Vice-Chancellorship, Prof. Dame Louise Richardson, the first female vice-chancellor of the University, sat down with The Oxford Student to reflect on her 6 years in office, from her proudest achievements and her greatest challenges, to her views on free speech, admissions, donations, and the Rhodes controversy.

What are you most proud of from your time at Oxford? 

I think what this university did in the pandemic is something we can be proud of. The fact that we produced this vaccine and distributed it at cost. By the end of 2021, 6.3 million lives have been saved by the vaccine. That is enormous. We’re the only university on the planet who’s done that. And to do it at cost, is just extraordinary. Also, I think internally we managed the pandemic very well. I think students had a much better experience than they would have in other institutions. 

What have been some of the greatest challenges during your time in Oxford?

There’s just been the challenge of dealing with a very unstable political environment. 

In my seven years we’ve had five Prime Ministers and nine Secretaries of State for Education. Ordinarily somebody in my role would invest some time and energy into developing those relationships, but, [that] hasn’t been possible. 

I’ve gotten myself into trouble for saying this before, but I’ll say it again. I do think politicians sometimes play politics with universities, and I wish they wouldn’t. We are really too important for that. This country has two of the best universities in the world, in fact several of the best universities in the world. There are not many other facets of British life that you can point to that have, universally acknowledged, several of the best in the world. [Politicians][ don’t quite appreciate the significance of universities and the important role that we play in British life and driving the economy. 

I wouldn’t generalize and say politicians are hostile. Individual politicians are, but certainly not all of them. Many are indifferent and not as many as I would like are seriously engaged in [being] advocates for universities. I wish we were appreciated more. 

How do you view the relationship between free speech and academia?

I have a pretty robust view on freedom of speech, which is that it shouldn’t be the preserve of [the] left or [the] right and all legal speech should be permitted at a university. And I mean that: I mean all legal speech. I don’t think anyone should be canceled from coming here irrespective of what their views are. We’re so fortunate to have freedom of speech but we shouldn’t take it for granted. 

When push comes to shove, I would defend any legal speech here however objectionable I find it; I wish everyone was prepared to do that.

I think there’s a deliberate effort to use free speech to beat universities by some of the right wing press. When I was an undergraduate, you know, the student union used to chant ‘no free speech for fascists’. So, it’s long been an issue. But it gets far more coverage in the press than I think it deserves. And I’m certainly not a fan of the bill going through parliament at the moment. I think it’s just playing politics. 

How did your experience at Harvard and St Andrews compare to your time at Oxford?

For most of my time at Harvard I was an academic – it was the last seven years that I was Executive Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. I have changed every job after seven years, it is just a pattern. Harvard is a very wealthy institution and has a particular role in American society, seen as the best or one of the best universities. It is also very decentralized but, as I tell my friends there, they think they are decentralized but they haven’t seen anything until they come to Oxford. They have a philosophy of what they call, ‘Every Tub on Its Own Bottom’, meaning each of the schools is financially independent. Radcliffe was actually one of the smallest and least well-endowed because it was historically the women’s college. Being at Harvard prepares you for an important institution with a major place in national life. 

Going to St Andrews, I was exposed first to the British system which I wasn’t altogether familiar with but also to a very traditional ancient university, the oldest university in Scotland, a place where tradition is important.

So, I think the combination of the very traditional or respect for the long history of the place in St Andrews plus being part of just a big major research university that was very powerful, both of those gave me exposure that helped prepare me for this one. 

What are your views about the Rhodes statue and how should a modern university navigate and consider the colonial aspects of our history and legacy?

To me, the issue is how do we judge people in the past and their actions? Do we judge them by the values of the time, or do we judge them by our values now? I often wonder, a hundred years from now, what would people say about us? I suspect if we haven’t destroyed the planet in the next hundred years, they will say we should be erased because we sat on our hands when the evidence of climate change was overwhelming. We sat on our hands in the face of growing inequality, of obscene wealth in some parts of the world, and people dying of starvation, or even in this community saying [we] ate animals a hundred years ago, [so] they should be erased.

I keep coming back to this, it is relative. 

The conditions of the mines owned by Cecil Rhodes were absolutely appalling. And the conditions of the people working in the mines in Wales at the same time were absolutely appalling. Death rates were comparable. This isn’t to justify anything, but it’s to say that these [judgments] are not black and white. It’s easy to be [a] purist, whereas in fact, I think most of these judgments are much more complicated. 

Because it’s a fine judgment call, are you slightly wary of removing [the] statue?

Well, I’m not going to be drawn into it. [Oriel College] have said they wanted it to come down, but they know the government isn’t going to take it down. So it remains. 

Could you talk about the fundraising element of the Vice-Chancellor’s job, particularly in reference to something like the Sackler Library considering that the Sackler name has been removed recently from places like the V&A?

Alumni are, as it were, owned by their college. I can’t fundraise from an alumnus without the say so of the college to which they belong. I decided to turn that into a plus rather than a minus by pursuing people who weren’t alumni, but who had an interest in some of the things that we were doing. I think that has been fairly successful. 

It was always the case that whenever you get a donation, you have to question where it comes from. We have a pretty robust process with this committee [made up of academics from around the university and externals] to review donations. We do a considerable degree of due diligence before accepting a gift because we’re concerned about the potential of reputational damage. Gifts from somebody like Cecil Rhodes were controversial, even in his day. Gifts from the Sacklers were completely uncontroversial until relatively recently. We make judgment calls all the time. To me, the main issue is what are we going to do with the money, are we going to do something good? I do think it’s legitimate to have restrictions on what money we will accept. This committee makes judgment calls and they are tough calls, putting a huge amount of effort in every decision. It is a judgment call every time. 

I don’t doubt that some people will disagree with [the decisions of our committee], but I think we have a far more robust process than any other institution I know [of].

How have you felt that diversity and inclusion has changed over your time here? 

Change has not come quickly enough. We’ve made strides on women, but even still, we’re at 20% of Statutory Professors are female [but] they’re 50% of the population. That’s not good enough at all. Although it is changing, we’ve seen a dramatic change in the number of female heads of house, which is enormously positive: close to 50%. 

When it comes to non-white members of staff, the numbers have increased. The trajectory is clear, the pace is much slower than we would like. There’s a whole raft of reasons for that. It’s not lack of will on our part. One of the ways we’re trying to address this is by taking a long term perspective and creating these black academic futures scholarships so that we can provide fully funded scholarships for black British students to get PhDs so that we can enlarge the pipeline. 

We have made some terrific appointments and I think somebody like Brenda Stevenson, for example, as the new Hilary Rodham Clinton Chair in Women’s History  is a fantastic appointment. But we need to pick up the pace. And the pace hasn’t been as fast as I would like.

Do you think Oxford is a particular case where [change is] slow?

If you look back at the last seven years, I think you’ve seen a lot of very significant changes, not least, of the changes to the socioeconomic condition makeup of the undergraduate student body. 

We’ve gone from 10% of our students from the most deprived backgrounds to 23%. We’ve seen a real change in the gender makeup of heads of house. We’ve seen a real step change in philanthropy. We’ve seen changes in earnings with industry. And thanks to the amazing work people [did] on the vaccine, we’ve seen a real change in attitude to what research universities like ours can contribute to society. 

In a role like this, you always have to be both looking backwards and forwards. We have all these medieval rituals, which so many people love and are part of the fabric of life here. So constantly looking back with respect to them, but also looking forward as to how the world is changing and how we can adapt those traditions to the future so that we are changing quickly enough to stay at the top, which we have to, if we want to maintain our global position. 

In terms of admissions, do you think the decline of incoming undergraduates from fee-paying schools is a positive change and where do you see that trajectory going? 

56% of our students came from the state sector seven years ago. Now it’s 68%. There has been a significant change.

I’ve never liked the dichotomy between private and state educated [students]. I speak as somebody who’s entirely state educated. There’s huge inequalities in the state system and there is a raft of reasons why some families who are not spectacularly wealthy may choose that their kids go to private schools. To me, what matters is the caliber of the students we attract. 

We are getting more and more applications every year and the size of the class hasn’t changed. So we’re turning down more and more people. There are more disappointed people every year. 

If I felt we weren’t getting the best students with the greatest potential, then I’d be very concerned. If you compare us to any other university, with the possible exception of Cambridge, the amount of care and attention that’s taken with every single kid who’s admitted [is] really impressive.

I have observed a real sea change. We were constantly being criticized on a daily basis in the press for not taking enough poor kids. Now we’re being criticized for not taking enough kids from private schools. What you have to do is listen to the criticism, try to be dispassionate and think about how reasonable it is. But ultimately, you’ve got to be guided by your values and do what you think is the right thing, which I think is identifying the kids with the greatest potential and bringing them here. 

What is your opinion on potential competition from American universities? 

As to who is going to America, it operates at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. So you can have wealthy families who can afford to pay the much higher tuition in the US on the one hand, who maybe haven’t gotten in here and want to try that. On the other hand, I’m on the board of the Sutton Trust. The Sutton Trust has this amazing program every year where they bring over kids from very deprived backgrounds and expose them to US universities, helping them to apply. By and large [they] qualify for a completely free ride. American universities are attracting [students] at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. 

I don’t really see much competition for undergraduates with American universities. We have a lot of competition with post-grads and there we don’t do so well because we’re not as wealthy. 

I myself didn’t come to Britain for graduate school because I didn’t have the money. It was much easier for me to go to Harvard, which costs many times more. But I knew I could count on getting scholarships in America that I couldn’t count on here. Sometimes we lose some of the very best graduate students because we can’t afford to fund them. That’s where the competition takes place. 

What did you think the potential ramifications of Brexit could be for Oxford? 

I was very much opposed to Brexit. I thought it was an affront to the values of an international institution like ours. But if I have to be perfectly honest, at this juncture, the damage hasn’t been as bad as I feared. We haven’t lost vast numbers of staff, which I was afraid we might do. 

We have certainly lost large numbers of undergraduate students. The number of EU applicants for undergraduate study here has dropped to about 3% of the incoming class instead of 8%. That’s a loss to the fabric and richness of the undergraduate community. [For] research funding, it’s still unsettled and this is enormously significant for us, whether or not we can participate in HORIZON [Europe].

I worry that there will be a slow erosion of the power of our research base and our ability to recruit and retain people. The immediate impact or the impact over the past five years hasn’t been as great as I thought it would be. I still think it is negative for us. And I think in 20 years time we might look back and say, oh, how did we get here? And you’ll see a gradual erosion of the research base because of Brexit.

How do you feel about being the first female Vice Chancellor at Oxford?

I’d be disingenuous to deny the symbolic significance of the appointment. One of my goals has always been to be succeeded by a woman. So I’m very chuffed to be succeeded by a woman here as I was in St. Andrews. I do think that when it comes to finding successors, the gender of the incumbent matters. If a man is successful in a role or not, his gender is irrelevant. If a woman is not successful in a role, [it’d] be attributed to her gender and the odds of being succeeded by a woman are much, much lower. I’ve contributed, as many other women have, to a normalization of women in positions of leadership and authority. And I’m delighted about that. 

Would you recommend the job?

Yes, of course. There is only one answer I could possibly give to that.