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Louise Richardson: “Do I think Oxford will be number one in 50 years’ time? No.”

Oxford vice chancellor Louise Richardson tells Will Dry that she won’t let tussles with media silence her on free speech

“I’m not going to get myself… well I’ll get myself in trouble anyway.” Louise Richardson was thinking aloud in response to one of my questions. It did not matter which question. She is not, and has never been, confined by societal limitations on what can and cannot be said. She will contravene convention by answering the question, not rewording it.

Not afraid to go on national radio and justify why she deserves her pay, or fight for free speech on unpopular issues – the right of Islamic extremists, fascists, and homophobes to speak on campus, for instance – she has faced some backlash from student and national press alike.

The interview she gives to Cherwell is yet another example of her willingness to answer tough questions. She would be forgiven for wanting to keep her head down, to refuse to engage with the “mendacious media” she has recently lambasted. Yet she defends herself on each issue. I start with the most recent: claims that she wishes to erode the autonomy of the college – a ‘controversy’ sparked after her recent annual Oration to the congregation (the University’s governing body).

“The press the day after my talk interpreted this as an attack on colleges – it absolutely wasn’t,” she tells me. “This is about the sharing of back office functions, so that we can improve the quality and reduce the cost of infrastructure.”

The sharing of back office functions is part of a wider package of reform: “I think we have to be much more creative about how we fund ourselves. We can do that by philanthropy, links with industry, in spinning out companies, in helping start-ups translate the knowledge that our research is generating into immediate impact on the economy.”

Why is reform so urgently needed? “If you’re asking me, do I think we will be number one in 50 years time? In all honesty, I would say no.” This is clearly a leader who is conscious of the various global and domestic trends which pose a series of threats to Oxford’s status, and who is conscious that now is the time for action.

She is concerned that at this time of increasing global competition, Britain is embarking upon Brexit – a policy which in her opinion spells nothing but bad news for universities. “My personal preference would be for Brexit not to occur. I would love to see another referendum in which the result of this last one is reversed.” The reason is that Brexit poses threats to two seminal parts of Richardson’s life: Oxford University, and Ireland.

“I worry absolutely about our European academics and I worry that we will lose access to the networks of collaborators that we have across Europe and that we will lose EU funding, and of course that the number of EU students will decline. Being involved in these networks is absolutely critical to our number one status.”

If the government does not pursue her preference for a second referendum, the next best option for British universities’ post-Brexit relations with Europe would be for them “to be as close as possible as the pre-Brexit relations with Europe.”

With the government declining to preserve all rights of EU nationals living here, she worries about her European staff and their families. “Anyone who is good enough to teach at Oxford is eminently poachable”, and that the government’s position “makes them consider more seriously the many other offers they get from other universities”.

This anxiety is personal as well as professional. She grew up in rural Ireland, one of seven children in Tramore, a seaside town of 3,000 people. She remembers, as a child crossing the border, being stopped by soldiers at gunpoint and searched. Since then, Richardson says: “We’ve seen the end of a long, festering ethnic conflict, and the EU has played a hugely positive role, often behind the scenes, often providing financial support for cross-border initiatives.”

“The idea that we would go back to having a hard border… It would be an open invitation to the extremists to reconstitute themselves, it would give them a very obvious target for
their anger, and yet it is very hard to see how you can have a virtual border between the EU and a non-EU state.”

Not only was she one of three Catholics in her class at Trinity College, Dublin, she was of a completely different socio-economic background. Her Catholic convent did not send students – let alone girls – to Trinity.

She had two jobs – as a waitress and assistant librarian – for most of her university life, and financed her university education completely by herself. She was also active in the anti-Apartheid society, and in anti-blood sports – an activity which caused great hilarity when she returned to her family in the country.

She was a regular at the marches against increasing fees, occupations of libraries and various other forms of direct action. Despite this varied set of activities, she tells me: “I wasn’t a particularly big name on campus.”

Each step forward in Richardson’s life has been one step further away from Tramore. From Trinity, to a scholarship at UCLA in America, to a PhD and academic career at Harvard, to becoming the first woman to be appointed Principal of St Andrews, and then the first to be appointed Vice Chancellor of Oxford. “It’s very important to me that I’m a woman in a very senior position and very important to me that I’m a woman from a background that’s very different. I come from a very different world from the one I currently occupy.”

In the journey to the top of academia, Richardson has received her fair share of hostility. At St Andrews, the Royal and Ancient Gold Club refused to grant her honorary membership because of her gender, and on more than one occasion, female professors noted Richardson surrounded by men waving their golf club ties in her direction. She would rather challenge these individuals than lock herself in a safe space to avoid them. Such an environment is very different to the one she sees today. “Children today – especially middle class children – tend to be more protected than certainly I was, more cosseted by their parents, so perhaps less exposed to views very different than their own, or people very different to their own.” The result is something “broader than just the safe space movement… Everyone is willing to concede free speech to people they agree with, but not nearly enough people are willing to cede speech to people they disagree with.”

She says she uses the same arguments to defend the Christian Union’s right to attend the Balliol freshers’ fair as she would to defend the right of Islamic extremists to speak on campus (as she did when challenging the government’s Prevent programme). “I really believe that all legal speech has to be heard on campus, and all of us have a right to challenge and must have an opportunity to challenge speech we don’t like.”

Such strong feelings about free speech certainly do not make Richardson’s life easier, quite the opposite. She describes the press, in her view, twisting her words as “the part of my job that I least like. I’ve been astounded by the frequency with which words have been put in my mouth, then I’ve been pilloried for saying them.

“It’s frankly horrible when views that you don’t hold, have never held, and are antithetical to anything you’ve ever stood for, are attributed to you.”

The recent public debate over pay is one of those issues where she feels hard done by. After a speech in London she describes how she later saw a newspaper with the headline, ‘Oxford VC Accuses Minister of Pay Lies’. “I never mentioned the minister, and I never mentioned pay lies.”

That said, she does not hold back discussing pay: “I feel absolutely convinced that it is going to be harder for British universities to recruit university leadership from overseas as a result of all this public pillorying of academics for being overpaid”.

The debate seems to be moving in a new direction. It was reported this week that vice chancellors at Russell Group universities were ‘lobbying’ for modern universities to bear the brunt of any cuts.

Richardson appears to support the line of argument: “At my university, with fees at £9,250, we just break even for home students. But some vice chancellors have admitted to me that teaching a student only costs them £5,000.” She tells me the reason Oxford cannot take the lead and reduce their fees is because “we subsidise every student to the tune of about £8000. So yes we could charge less but it would mean the money would have to come from someplace and we would have to cut something.”

Her ideal day is with her husband and kids, and a good book nearby. “The wonderful thing about fiction is that it takes you out of yourself, out of your world, and you occupy the mind and world of another.” She cannot get much time for reading however, saying she starts work at 7 am and finishing at 11pm seven days a week for weeks on end. Does she get burnt out? “It’s very exhausting and hugely exhilarating”.

Only 18 months into her job, and just beginning on a set of reforms to secure Oxford’s future, one feels there will be plenty more questions given straight answers, and plenty more clashes with the media ahead.

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