When she was announced as the University of St Andrews’ new principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Sally Mapstone recalled how a warden had often referred to her as the “diminutive Miss Mapstone.”
While she may not be tallest in height of the 11 people who have held her post, Professor Mapstone’s stature as an academic and university leader is not one that can be considered small by any standards.
At the beginning of March, Professor Mapstone sat down with The Saint for her first interview with a student publication since taking office in September. In the wake of Brexit and ongoing political instability, she spoke about the “baptism of fire” represented by such unprecedented tumult in British higher education.
“It’s been a really hectic six months, because there’s a tremendous amount going on externally as well as internally, so I’ve arrived at a time when politically, this is a time of considerable turbulence and disruption,” Professor Mapstone said
She went on to describe her meetings with Scottish politicians and fellow university principals, as well as her global trips to meet St Andrews alumni.
I’ve arrived at a time when politically, this is a time of considerable turbulence and disruption
Professor Mapstone added: “In six months, I’ve really [gotten] through a lot. I’ve also gone round every single school in the University, and I’m about two-thirds of the way around all the units and services, which to me is very important. […] I need to meet the people who cut the grass here because everybody has a part to play in St Andrews.
“So, I’ve done a lot. There’s still lots to do, but I feel fantastically optimistic.”
At the beginning of September, Professor Mapstone joined hundreds of freshers as a newcomer to St Andrews.
“I was a fresher too, and I did really feel that actually because I kept wandering around and going the wrong way, hoping that people didn’t notice when I had to come out again,” she said.
Similarly to real freshers, Professor Mapstone experienced her first Raisin Weekend last October –– though her embrace of St Andrews’ most famous tradition was slightly different than most first years’.
“I was kind of braced for Raisin. […] I did go out on the streets quite a bit on the weekend and did a fair number of selfies with people dressed as bananas and things of that sort,” Professor Mapstone explained.
Professor Mapstone is the second woman to lead the University in its 604 year history. Her predecessor, Professor Louise Richardson, was St Andrews’ first female principal.
Throughout her career, Professor Mapstone has been a passionate supporter of gender equality. At Oxford, she was pro-vice chancellor for personnel and equality from 2009 to 2011 and established Ad Feminam, a program encouraging women to explore their leadership potential in academia.
“When I went [to Oxford], the place was still very, very male-dominated,” Professor Mapstone said. “There were 30 colleges and only 10 of them admitted women, so if you were a woman in Oxford in the ‘70s were occasions where one really felt that that mattered.
Sometimes it was a bit hard to get your voice heard and so forth. And that didn’t seem right to me. I think university is the place where you experiment with your voice. Actually, I’ve rarely been [hesitant] in expressing my views, but I did observe that there were women who did, I think, feel inhibited, or impeded, more or less because they were women, and they weren’t being given opportunities.
As a student at Wadham College, Professor Mapstone benefitted from its relatively left-wing leanings.
“I was taught by the Marxist Terry Eagleton,” she explained, “so I think I was quite politicised. […] Issues of equality really mattered to me, and I think what affects you at university goes on affecting you.”
Issues of equality form a large part of Professor Mapstone’s outlook. Widening access for students from deprived backgrounds is one of her main priorities, and she recently led a review of this issue for the Scottish government.
Issues of equality really mattered to me
In a February interview with The Saint, Students’ Association President Charlotte Andrew said she thought the University often did not receive enough credit for its widening access initiatives.
The principal agreed with Ms Andrew, citing current widening access initiatives such as “First Chances” in Fife schools with the Robertson Trust.
She emphasised, however, that most efforts to close the attainment gap need to happen when students are still relatively young, so universities’ capacity to help is limited.
Professor Mapstone also noted the number of St Andrews students from “areas of multiple deprivation” has risen in recent years, but “I think they could still get better.”
She added, “I think that we now actually have a rather mature and nuanced contextual admissions system at St Andrews. What isn’t clear to me is that we communicate that as effectively to potential applicants, their families, their teachers, and their advisors as we could do, so that is a real priority for me.”
Before Professor Mapstone is able to focus on such issues of inequality, she must navigate higher education’s current challenge: Brexit.
Freedom of movement for staff and students is a key concern, as the University is eager to maintain its ability to easily recruit staff and students from across the EU.
This may prove difficult as the UK distances itself from the continent, but Professor Mapstone firmly believes in efforts to maintain greater access for EU academics and students.
“I don’t think it’s over yet,” she said. “British universities can argue very strongly, and indeed I would say passionately for, freedom of movement for staff and students but more broadly for people.”
Professor Mapstone also expressed hope the government would make special exceptions for the higher education sector.
“One of the issues that we may have to look at is whether the government actually says, as it were, bring in freedom of movement for particular highly skilled groups,” she said.
Although the UK government has already discussed the status of international students, a consultation Professor Mapstone said “has been ready for quite some time” is yet to be officially issued.
“They’re waiting for the higher education bill to go through the House of Commons and House of Lords, [and …] they are aware that there has been really powerful and I think actually quite effective lobbying showing how valuable international students are to universities and to the UK economy generally,” she explained.
“The government needs to be sure that if it’s going to consult on this it asks, if you like, really meaningful questions, and it asks the right questions and couches the consultation in the right form.”
Professor Mapstone expressed frustration regarding the government’s overall attitude towards international academics, adding, “You want to say, ‘Just come and see the University of St Andrews. We’ve got 135 nationalities here, we’re a diverse community, and we’re all the better for that. It really enhances the experiences that students and staff have here.’ […] But I’m a great believer in the power of reason and the power of example and the power of illustration.”
One of Professor Mapstone’s ideas for encouraging freedom of movement is providing examples of the economic and intellectual benefits provided by international students and staff.
She cited St Andrews’ Scottish Oceans Institute as one such example, explaining it “completely encapsulates what we do. It’s international, it’s Scottish, [and] its influence is world-leading. We couldn’t do that without the real kind of mix of staff and students we have feeding into that and […] international collaborations.”
Another major political issue on Professor Mapstone’s radar is the rise of US President Donald Trump. St Andrews’ tendency towards a less politically active climate was disturbed earlier this year when students and locals protested President Trump and to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we don’t want to put them off because they’re going to think they can’t afford to live in St Andrews. In order to alleviate students’ housing concerns, Professor Mapstone will consider several key points: availability of accommodation, future building and renovation plans, housing costs, and efforts to mitigate existing costs.
Additionally, she will convene a short-term working group on accommodation involving students, Residential Business Services, and the proctor.
“What we’re going to do is to look at our current pricing system, the rationale for it, and then, how we offset, where we can, our charges,” Professor Mapstone said. “The message I would want to convey is this is an area that I do think needs looking at, and I’ve asked a group of people […] to look at these issues. […] But you have to give us a bit of time to do that.”
Despite emphasising her understanding of student concerns over accommodation costs, the principal also defended the University’s right and need to make money.
Regarding the renting out of student accommodation during the summer months, a complaint of some students, she emphasised the money is reinvested in ventures such as new sports facilities or reducing student costs for the upcoming year.
“I’m afraid, realistically, we have to look at what we can do in terms of income streams. We’re a small university, [so] we have to maximise what we can get out of our accommodation.”
The principal also expanded on her installation address warning regarding the world’s “post-truth” climate.
“I think universities have to have the courage to say that we are in, ideologically, a really testing situation at the moment, and universities are the places that you should expect people to both express that and explore this,” she said.
Professor Mapstone also made a robust defence of the idea of expertise and the role of universities in general, stating, “I think that there is nothing wrong with expertise. I think that we all learn a huge amount from people who know a lot about a subject and can help you see round it, and many of those people are in universities.”
In her installation address, the principal also warned against the idea of “trigger warnings” in academia, saying that universities and students should confront difficult ideas.
Professor Mapstone added she does not think free speech at universities is currently under threat, but “there’s a potential risk that it might be.”
She further explained, “We shouldn’t confuse the whole questions of trigger warnings and safe spaces, which I have huge reservations about. I think university is the place where you should feel uncomfortable, frankly. I think it’s where you should feel uncertain and challenged on occasion, because actually, a lecture or a class, in its own way, is a safe space where people kind of explore difficult things.”
I think university is the place where you should feel uncomfortable, frankly
“I would always try to err on the side [of] allowing as much argument and debate as possible because I think that debate is healthy, and I think that quelling debate is rarely healthy. But I do think it is essential that debate be conducted with courtesy and sensitivity, and decency, and fairness.”
Overall, Professor Mapstone said she believed St Andrews was generally better than other universities at encouraging debate on controversial ideas.
One issue on which the principal might have reason to be less confident is that of future funding for the University. In her exit interview with The Saint, Professor Louise Richardson said that funding would be the greatest challenge facing her successor.
Professor Mapstone explained, “One of the things all universities have to do is to fundraise, so engaging in fundraising and engaging in philanthropic activity is a large part of my job, in the sense of speaking to potential prospects, speaking to our existing donors, and in many ways, although that’s a demanding part of the job, it’s a very enjoyable part of the job. I have conveyed many of the things that are wonderful about St Andrews to people who we want to support it.
However, the principal also noted the low base from which the endowment starts and added that the different fee status of English universities compared to Scottish institutions makes it easier for those organisations south of the border to raise capital.
Professor Mapstone went on to emphasise the diversity of fundraising efforts the University is exploring, saying, “We’re modelling for different sorts of fee status [and] we’re certainly modelling for post-Brexit. Where is most of our research income going to come from? And we’re also modelling for […] the best way to approach development and philanthropic activity. On the other hand, and without wishing to sound too much like the prime minister, I’m not going to show my workings in public until we’ve got something to show.”
One potential revenue source is charging Scottish and EU students tuition. This idea was suggested by Scottish Conservatives during the 2016 election.
The principal acknowledged flaws in the current system, saying, “There are aspects of the fees regime in Scotland that could be argued to work against the access initiatives, in that the number of Scottish students is capped for us, and I think that that makes access more complicated and more demanding to strategise.”
Professor Mapstone, who previously suggested the introduction of variable tuition fees during her time at Oxford, did not wholly reject the idea of the Scottish government introducing tuition fees.
“I think that the Scottish government, as all governments are going to be post-Brexit, is going to be under a lot of financial strain,” she said, “and I think it […] it makes sense for the Scottish government, like the rest of us, to ask itself a few questions. Everybody has to refresh their strategy from time to time, and I think it’s worth asking a few questions about the whole tuition fee situation.
“You know, it’s actually striking in England, whatever one might say about tuition fees, [that] there is not very clear evidence that the introduction of tuition fees in England led to a deteriorating access situation. I think that’s just worth reflecting on.”
The principal also spoke at length on her personal background and connection to Scotland. Her field of expertise is Scots literature, and she explained, “I associate St Andrews kind of with quality of scholarship, quality of life, quality of place, and I knew a fair number of people here and when, really quite unexpectedly, the opportunity to give St Andrews some leadership came up, for me it was very resonant, because all my research career, all my scholarly career, has been devoted to Scotland.
“I have probably spent more time in Scotland that I have anywhere else apart from Oxford in the past 35 years, and within Scotland, St Andrews has been the place I’ve kept coming back to. So it felt very natural coming here. I felt that I could contribute something. I felt that I understood the place and it would understand me.”
Professor Mapstone’s tendency to ignore the status quo, as evidenced by her extensive efforts to promote gender equality, has been apparent throughout her life.
“To be honest, I got into studying medieval Scottish literature because I was told that I couldn’t,” she said. “That’s probably one of my most distinctive characteristics as a human being. If you tell me I can’t do something, I do tend to try to do it.”
“When I was at Oxford, I discovered medieval Scottish literature, and wanted to study it, and those days it was hardly anybody who could teach it and I was told I couldn’t do it, so I insisted on doing it and I’ve never looked back really.”
It is worth noting the principal did not actually start her career in academia. Initially, she worked as an editor for Weidenfeld and Nicolson publishers and was even a “Mother of the Chapel” (shop steward for that workplace) in the publishers’ division of the National Union of Journalists.
“I had the sense that there was another world that I ought to try out,” Professor Mapstone said. “It doesn’t do any harm if you go and do something else first, because when I decided to go back into academia, I knew I wanted to go back into it.”
St Andrews is undoubtedly a unique university with unique challenges, and if one thing is clear from this interview, Professor Mapstone will not approach them in a “diminutive” fashion.