Louise Richardson’s Oxford gain may be our loss

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Kevin Dunion with principal Louise Richardson and chancellor Sir Menzies Campbell at his rectorial installation. Photo: The University of St Andrews

A friend of mine once reeled off to me that oldest of truisms that ‘you don’t know what you had until you’ve lost it’. He had recently broken up with a girlfriend and he was attempting to work out if it had all been a terrible mistake to throw her out so unceremoniously. There had been some tears, hours of lost sleep, and rather a lot of alcohol consumed on his part, but that was the one sentence he was able to wrap his tongue around successfully and vocalise to me. But despite how much it obviously meant to him, something about it always stuck in the throat for me. Surely if someone is truly that important to how you live, you would notice the effect it is having on your life, and would understand how much good it is doing to have them helping you. Surely it doesn’t take until the very real moment of that going that you realise how much you gained from it.

Unsurprisingly then Professor Louise Richardson’s decision to step down from her role as principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews to take up the same duty at the University of Oxford was greeted with little more that a confused ‘oh really?’ amongst most students, a few barely muffled cheers from Yes voters and a general shrug from everyone involved in the University in a position below the University Court. This is, in a way, understandable. General consensus of what Professor Richardson’s job consists of ranges from her running the entire town (perhaps as the overlord of G1 group) to her simply sending us all the occasional e-mail, while a select group of people who no doubt make their own hats out of tin foil continue to insist that she is a fully initiated and active member of the IRA. I can only assume this is because she is Irish, and also because teaching of The Troubles this side of the Irish sea mainly consists of dodgy parcel jokes and a cursory understanding of that U2 song.

Certainly she has not always been the most popular of figures in St Andrews, and has never been remiss in stating her opinion on matters concerning the University; her involvement in the Kate Kennedy’s female election debacle of 2012 as well as speaking in favour of the same change being brought about in the Royal and Ancient golf club are well known, but it has not only been on matters of equality that she has been vocal. Professor Richardson was outspoken in support of a united Britain during the referendum circus of last year, particularly notably in a heated telephone conversation with Alex Salmond wherein she refused to change her tune on Scottish independence. She also, somewhat controversially, spoke out in support of the £9,000 tuition fees, describing them as ‘very little to pay’, in 2013.

Issues of money have been raised in the last academic year too, though this time criticisms were being aimed at the principal herself following a £30,000 bonus being awarded to her on top of her £225,000 annual salary. ‘Bonus’ has, of course, become something of a dirty word in recent years with the various scandals around them but this is St Andrews, not Canary Wharf. On top of this it has to be put into context that the man from whom she is taking over from at Oxford, Professor Andrew Hamilton, brings home almost double that at £434,000 per annum.

The fact is though that Oxford would not have appointed her as vice-chancellor and principal if she did not have the skills necessary to carry out this post, and having been in the very same position here in Fife since 2009 means that something about her must have impressed them. The chancellor of the University of Oxford, Lord Patten of Barnes, said: ‘the panel was deeply impressed by Professor Richardson’s strong commitment to the educational and scholarly values which Oxford holds dear. 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.’ Certainly then she has done something right in her time up here in St Andrews. The University of Oxford’s own website notes that apparently her tenure as principal up here in the frozen north has been: ‘marked by a strong focus on academic mission, student experience and development of the university’s infrastructure.’ Whatever that means. In any case, she obviously impressed them enough to be given the opportunity to be Oxford’s first ever female vice-chancellor and principal, a cherry which she popped up here too when she was appointed, though she was quoted in The Guardian as saying: ‘I look forward to the day when a woman being appointed isn’t in itself news. Unfortunately, academia like most professions is pyramid-shaped – the higher up you go the fewer women there are.’ Notably both St Andrews and Oxford were pipped to this particular post by the University of Cambridge, which appointed its first female vice-chancellor in 1975 in the shape of Dame Alice Rosemary Murray, and appointed its second (and first full-time female vice-chancellor), Dame Alison Richard, in 2003.

So, as the final strains of Auld Lang Syne echo around the streets of St Andrews on New Year’s day next year, we will officially have a new vice-chancellor, and while her successor is likely to be named soon (no doubt spawning much discussion in the town), the true worth of her tenancy as principal will likely not become clear for some time after she has moved on. For Professor Richardson it is doubtless a high point in her career; she noted herself that it was the culmination of a lifetime’s ambition, but for the University the effects of her decision will become clearer as time moves on, and it is of the greatest importance that the University selects the right candidate to continue the work done by the incumbent. St Andrews has improved the inclusivity of its admissions process by lowering the percentage of privately educated students under Professor Richardson’s stewardship, and our degrees have never been worth more than under her leadership. Oxford is bound to benefit in precisely the same manner under her, but we must ensure that the quality of education at St Andrews continues to improve under her successor and does not fall away.

Make no mistake, the outspoken Professor Richardson will not be missed by some sections of St Andrews society, but perhaps we will only realise how good we had it once she has moved onto greener and less windy pastures. Naturally, as an authority figure amongst university students she is, rightly or wrongly, rarely appreciated, however in years to come that may very well change. Time will be the only way of finding out whether Professor Richardson was a successful appointment, and it may well take a comparison with her replacement to truly put her work into context, or maybe the outsider’s perspective once she heads the University of Oxford will enable us to see what we had when we no longer have it.

In any case on the 1st of January 2016 she will, for better or for worse, move on. St Andrews will continue to exist regardless, albeit under another principal, and most students will barely notice the difference. St Andrews has, however, progressed hugely under her jurisdiction, and when we come to look back at her time as principal and vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, one feels it will be with respect and admiration. She will leave behind a large pair of shoes under the desk of her office on North Street, and the University Court will have to work very hard indeed to find a person who fits them.

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