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“Some people claim a right not to be offended. And I think that’s unfortunate.” Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson in conversation with Cherwell

Serving since January 2016, Professor Louise Richardson’s term as Vice-Chancellor comes to an end this year. The first female vice-chancellor, presiding over a significant increase in state-school access, leading the programme that led to the AstraZeneca vaccine programme — Richardson’s tenure was marked by memorable events. To mark the end of her time at Oxford, she sat down with Cherwell, discussing everything from free speech and statues of Cromwell to AstraZeneca and access.

Cherwell:  What were some highlights from your time as Vice-Chancellor? 

Prof Louise Richardson: The day the vaccine was approved by the MHRA would be an absolute highlight. So was the day when we were told the results of the efficacy trials. The whole experience of the Oxford vaccine, and that we effectively managed to find a pharma company or a company that was willing to manufacture at risk and distribute at cost, was very significant.

How directly involved were you in that process?

Very. I was not involved at all in the science, but I was there when we were all told, together with the scientists, what the efficacy results were. I helped negotiate the deal with AstraZeneca. I was very closely involved in all of that. Also, of course, I chaired the Silver Group, which is the group which made decisions about how the university was going to respond to the pandemic. I think the university came into its own when you had the colleges looking after their students, I think better than students in almost all the other universities in the country, were looked after. You had the central University, with the engagement of colleges, interacting with the government, making the decisions, interacting with the local community and all the rest of it. So that was definitely a highlight. Other highlights, of course, are bringing in huge gifts, £185 million for Humanities, £100 million for microbial resistance and £88 million for Reuben College.

What were challenging moments and experiences, as Vice Chancellor?

There’s been a few of those … which ones would I want to mention? It’s just a complicated institution to lead. Sometimes it’s hard to get the message about Oxford out, the fact that we are, I believe, a true meritocracy. Yet the public don’t perceive us as such. It’s quite a challenge, to get that message out. And of course, it was challenging, once the reality of the pandemic became clear, when we realised that we were going to have to lock down; that was a major challenge.

What, in your eyes, is the role of a university such as Oxford? What is the mission that combines both leading this kind of world-beating research and developing a vaccine and teaching first-year undergraduates?

I actually don’t think our mission has changed in eight- or nine-hundred years, or however long we’ve been here. It’s been three parts. It’s been pushing the frontiers of knowledge. That’s the research that we do, whether it’s a pandemic, or antimicrobial resistance, or English literature. It’s educating the next generation, and it’s contributing to the world around us.  I think all three of those came into play during the pandemic. I think we’re doing all three more effectively than we have historically.

There is this perception of undergraduate education as this old-fashioned public-school boy who comes here and has his three years of fun. Did you feel that those debates around undergraduate education detract from this other mission, producing research?

Well, seven years ago, we were being criticised in the press constantly for being inaccessible to poor kids. Now, we’re getting criticism for the fact that it’s harder — it is alleged to be harder — for privately educated kids to get in. And so yes, I think those criticisms are a distraction. They’re deeply unfortunate, because if you’re constantly described in these terms, then it becomes much harder for us to recruit the very best kids from every part of the country, irrespective of their background.

Oxford has a unique governance structure: the decentralised collegiate system.  What has it meant for you as Vice-Chancellor? If you could press a button which would swap the governance structure of Oxford for that of Harvard, where the central administration runs the show, would you do so?

[Laughs] I don’t think I’m going to answer that … I do think this system we have is deeply inefficient. But I don’t think it’s really understood from the outside. When I talk to people on the outside, they describe it constantly as a central administration versus the colleges. Actually, it’s more complex than that. It’s much more of a tripartite system with departments, colleges, and the central administration.

We’re in an institution where you’ve got an awful lot of very, very talented people. And I worry that we are so parsimonious when it comes to spending money. But when it comes to the resource that I value most, which is time, we’re completely profligate in how we use it by having people spend time on many committees that duplicate one another.  I don’t actually think it helps good governance particularly. The argument in its favour is that everybody has views that can be heard, but actually, representative democracies by and large work pretty well. So, it doesn’t have to be a kind of universal representation.

So, would you, if you could, replace the collegiate system with a structure similar to an American university?

Well, I’m not going to annoy all the college heads by saying I would eliminate the autonomy of colleges. But I would say that if we were setting out to create a world-leading university we would not structure it this way.

Following up on governance. As a Vice-Chancellor, what lessons can be drawn from the long-running dispute between Christ Church and their former Dean? They received a formal reprimand from the Charity Commission last week.

One of the problems, of course, is that people outside the institution do not distinguish between Christ Church, or Jesus, or St. Peter’s and the University. They assume both are one and the same. You have to be of the place to appreciate the differences.

I was called upon by people, large numbers of people, alumni, the government, you name it, to resolve this dispute. I was closely involved for many years encouraging both sides to reach an agreement – you can see how successful that was. There’s no denying the fact that the dispute was damaging to the university. People did not understand the difference between college and University; we are intimately linked in that way.

Frankly — whenever something happens in a college it rebounds on the University, and vice versa, there’s no avoiding that. But on most issues, I think there’s less tension in the relationship between colleges and University today than there’s been in many, many years. I think we work very closely together. I’ve worked very closely with the last three chairs of conferences. We were all very closely connected as we were dealing with the pandemic. The one area where there can be tension is on the whole issue of fundraising, where colleges own, for want of a better word, their alumni.

Now, in my case, I decided rather than having a fight about that, I was just going to pursue non-alumni. And in fact, all the major gifts we brought in, the very big gifts: £185 mn Schwarzman, £100 mn from Jim Ratcliffe, £88 mn from the Reubens, they’ve all been from non-alumni, which is pretty fantastic. So I’ve actually tried to make a virtue of necessity in that area. The other area, undergraduate education, that’s where the colleges really come into their own. That’s where there is a huge amount of interaction between university and college as the people doing the teaching in the colleges are often joint appointees. So, I actually think for the most part, it’s gone pretty well.

During one of your orations, you had a quote: “Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable.” Do you believe students have become too comfortable? What do you think the state of academic free speech looks like today?

I would say the state of freedom of speech in Oxford is pretty robust. Every student who matriculates hears me on the subject. In my matriculation speech, I say to every incoming student that this is a place where you can expect to hear views that you don’t like, and I exhort them to follow the Augustinian precept of Audi alteram partem — hear the other side. If you hear views you don’t like, engage with them, and be open to having your own mind changed. I think we need to keep pushing that message.

Have students become too comfortable?

I wouldn’t say students are too comfortable, but there is a view amongst some students — and it’s not all students — there is a right not to be offended.  I think that’s unfortunate.  I’d like to persuade them that that’s not a healthy approach to take. Education is all about being uncomfortable, about being challenged with views that you hadn’t considered or encountered before and figuring out your position vis-a-vis those points of view.

We both know that the press – or some parts of the press – likes to use the issue of freedom of speech as a stick with which to beat certain universities. But I think we’re pretty robust on the issue, even if not every student or every staff member would agree with me precisely on where to draw the lines. My own view is that all legal speech should be welcomed at universities.

With the invasion of Ukraine, there has been a reassessment of money from Russia. When it comes to fundraising, how should we trade off the usefulness of this money for increasing the stock of knowledge in the world with the fact that money often comes from more questionable sources, and may be used to launder reputations in a way which we find undesirable?

Well, first of all, we have a very robust process, we have a committee to review donations made up of academics from across the university and externals, who decide whether or not to accept funding. We have some firm rules such as: No money from proceeds of crime, or from tobacco. Often, it’s a question of judgment and these things aren’t black and white.  But I’m pretty comfortable with the funding that we take. I will defend every gift we’ve taken on my watch, even though, ultimately, it was the Committee’s approval that mattered.

I think we can be a little too pure about all of this. I worry sometimes about what people 100 years from now are going to think about us. They could look back at us and say, well, they sat on their hands in the face of unbelievable inequality. Or we sat on our hands while the evidence of climate change was overwhelming. We ate animals: I suspect 100 years from now, that may be seen as completely morally reprehensible. So, one has to make judgment calls here, based on the values we hold today.

To what degree are traditions which form Oxford valuable for their own sake? And how should we deal with the legacies of oppression in the past?

Well, there’s a whole bunch of questions in that. With the business surrounding gowns and so on, I know that every time this has been put to a vote, the students have voted to retain them. On that, I would say that these traditions are part of our conversation with our past and give people a sense of community and students seem to want them. I would see that as quite a separate issue.

I think we have to be very careful, precisely because we are such a historic University. How do we decide who meets our ethical standards?  Again, I think we need to confront our past. I’ll give you an example. I grew up in Ireland — rural Ireland. When I was growing up Oliver Cromwell was the devil incarnate. He was to me what Voldemort was to my kids. Then growing up, going to London, and seeing this big statue outside the House of Commons and going to see who it was. And I thought: “Oh my gosh, that’s Cromwell. Well, isn’t that fascinating? Here we are, a few hundred miles away, and this man who I was brought up to see as an evil butcher has been lionised. Isn’t that fascinating?”. And I thought: “What is it about this guy?” I wanted to learn more and more about him. It never occurred to me that his statue should be ripped down because he did terrible things in Ireland. I’d love us to educate ourselves on our history to understand more. But to hold people to values that we hold today? I just don’t have the confidence in our own moral purity to think that we really have got a right to do that. Because how we live our lives now could well be questioned.

At a national level, there has been a shift toward STEM education. Oxford, traditionally perceived as more of a humanities-orientated institution, is now the premier university for the life sciences. How should we understand that shift? How, if at all, must we trade off the value between a STEM and Humanities degree?

So, I don’t think there’s a conflict between the two. I think there has been a shift nationally, and not just nationally, I think it’s true in many other countries as well. I take great pride in the fact that historically, we were known as the humanities place and Cambridge as the science place, and that’s no longer true. I think Oxford is pre-eminent both in the humanities and the sciences. And that’s where I want to keep it.

The medics will figure out how to prolong our lives but its the humanities that will make those longer lives worth living. How do you attribute value to a poem to a piece of music? They are essential to what it means to be human. I’m delighted to be in an institution which values humanities so much, and it’s why I really wanted to get a major gift for the humanities. I wanted to really make an assertion that Oxford, this powerful institution, really cared about the humanities by securing the best and biggest gift since the Renaissance for the Humanities. I felt that to be of huge symbolic importance, and I’m really proud of that.

What would your parting message be to students?

Just enjoy your time here. It is an extraordinary privilege. Enjoy it and make the most of it. Try things out, engage, and don’t let an opportunity pass you by. Just jump at everyone that comes your way. You have to enjoy this time.

Image Credit: OUImages/John Cairns

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