The end of an era: discussing Principal Louise Richardson’s tenure

Students participate in the Gaudie. Photo: The University of St Andrews.

As Professor Louise Richardson’s six-year tenure as principal and vice-chancellor draws to a close, The Saint asked several University leaders to reflect on her time at St Andrews. Professor Richardson, who became principal in January 2009, is leaving St Andrews to become the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford effective 1 January 2016. She will be Oxford’s 297th vice-chancellor, and the first woman to hold the position.

During her tenure, Professor Richardson has focused on the University’s core academic mission. St Andrews’ place in national and league tables has risen throughout her years here, and the University has also seen improvements to its infrastructure with the opening of a new medical school building and the Biomedical Sciences Research Complex. Additionally, Professor Richardson has overseen many of the university’s 600-year anniversary celebrations.

Rector Catherine Stihler said: “I think that in the six years of her tenure we have seen the University [and its staff] seriously look at our responsibility on climate change. We have started to reap the benefits of our inclusion and access policy and we are facing the future challenges of the higher education sector in an open and prepared manner.”

Jo Boon, president of the feminist society, highlighted Professor Richardson’s ability to lead the University effectively while still maintaining a “sense of presence in the community.”

The “presence” referred to by Ms Boon comes, in part, from Professor Richardson’s background in international relations. Prior to coming to St Andrews, Professor Richardson was the Executive Dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, where she oversaw Radcliffe’s transition from an all-female college to an interdisciplinary center and lectured on international security and terrorism.

Professor Richardson has continued to give international relations lectures at St Andrews, complementing her many duties as principal.

Mira Boneva, the international relations school president, said: “I remember sneaking in the second year IR lecture [Professor Richardson] was giving when I was a fresher. Seeing this woman I [had] walked by and casually chatted to a week earlier on the pier, not knowing who she was then, giving a lecture just in front of me, and being the leader of an educational institution I called my home, … [left me with] only the feeling of awe and the thought, ‘This is why I came to this University.’”

Ms Boon has also attended an international relations lecture taught by Professor Richardson.

“It was great to meet [Professor Richardson],” Ms Boon said. “Clearly she is extremely intelligent, and it has been fantastic to have such an inspirational academic as the first female [principal] here. I wish her the best as Oxford’s first female vice-chancellor. Whilst it is sad these are both ‘firsts,’ I am glad she is pioneering the way for more to follow.”

Annie Newman, the rector’s assessor, also discussed the fact that Professor Richardson was St Andrews’ first female principal.

Photo: University of St Andrews
Photo: University of St Andrews

“I fear recognising her only for the fact that she’s a woman risks marginalizing the amazing work she’s done, but I think women (and men) in St Andrews are very lucky to have had a fearless woman as a role model throughout their time here, and to have witnessed the first female principal at St Andrews,” Ms Newman said.

Professor Richardson’s tenure has also been defined by several controversial incidents. In 2012, she spoke out against the Kate Kennedy Club’s exclusion of women, saying: “The official endorsement of any club or society which excludes people because of their gender or race would be completely at odds with the values of this university, and our commitment to foster an open and inclusive international community of scholars and students in St Andrews.” The University subsequently withdrew all official support from the club.

Following these comments, the Kate Kennedy Club moved to allow all first-year students, regardless of gender, to apply for membership. In response, Professor Richardson released a statement expressing delight at the decision.

The Kate Kennedy Club declined to comment on Professor Richardson’s tenure, although they did offer the following statement: “ The club would like to take this opportunity to thank Principal Richardson for her continued service to the University over the past six and a half years and wish her all the best in her new position as vice-chancellor of Oxford University.”

Professor Richardson has also attracted attention for her comments in support of a united Britain and £9,000 Scottish tuition fees, as well as her £30,000 bonus in the 2014-15 academic year.

Ms Stihler discussed several of the aforementioned controversies, saying: “I think that Professor Richardson has been one of the few principals willing to stick her head above the parapet on diverse issues such as on the consequences of independence to higher education in Scotland, and most recently on the value of foreign students. She has never been afraid to stand up for what she believes in and I think that is a great quality which I hope any successor will continue.”

Overall, Ms Boneva said Professor Richardson is leaving behind a legacy of strong leadership, belief in investment in the quality of education, and pursuit of excellence and deeper understanding of the world.

“She was the politically active, opinionated and outstanding principal the University as an institution and a community needed to be represented by,” Ms Boneva said. “On [a] personal level, she was [an] inspiration to me, a female IR student coming from the periphery of a powerful and affluent community. She was one of the leaders who inspired me to even imagine myself in my current role.”


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