Dame Louise Richardson is the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford and is a Professor of International Relations. In 2023, she will be departing Oxford to take up a new position as President of New York’s Carnegie Foundation. In this interview, Prof Sarah Blagden hears how Louise's rural upbringing and passion for academic pursuit has led to a rich and varied international career.
Infectiously optimistic is fitting description of our Vice Chancellor, Dame Louise Richardson, who hangs up her robes of office this December after seven years. Her innate enthusiasm suggests a life of fortune and opportunity but is actually one of extraordinary determination. After all, she has stood up to terrorists, faced off a misogynistic golf club at St Andrews and dealt with brickbats during her tenure in Oxford while steering it through a global pandemic. This came at considerable personal cost as lockdown travel bans precluded her from seeing her US-based husband and family or even attending her father’s funeral. She is also a survivor of metastatic thyroid cancer. These experiences would be enough to crush the strongest of characters, so what made Louise so particularly brave?
Louise was born into a large, bustling and no-nonsense rural Catholic Irish family. Her mother Julie married sales-rep Arthur when she was 18 and Louise was the second of their seven children and the first of her family to go to university. She cites her older brother – the “golden boy” – as her first major challenge and quickly learnt to fight for her space both physically and intellectually. She adopted the strategy of throwing the first verbal punch at the boys that cat-called her on the way to her convent school in Tramore (see picture) and was later described by her mentor (the political scientist Stanley Hoffman) as ‘un-intimidatable’.
Her first step along the academic path was at Trinity College Dublin where, despite an initial plan to study law, Louise took a BA in history. During her studies, she won a Rotary Foundation scholarship at the University of California which gave her a taste of American academia. She later returned there to do a masters in political science. After that, she swapped coastlines to Harvard where she obtained an MA and PhD in Government, exploring the complexities of maintaining governmental alliances during political conflicts. Here, she met and married her medic husband Tom but to her mother-in-law’s horror did not adopt his Boston Brahmin surname. Louise delivered her first child at the same time as her PhD thesis, the delivery was complicated and her baby daughter was medevac’d to New York to be placed on extracorporeal oxygen. She continued as an academic in Harvard’s Department of Government from 1989 to 2001, first as assistant and then associate professor, and had two more children. She has previously described the challenges of taking her toddlers to conferences and her terrifying third pregnancy in which she received her cancer diagnosis and opted to defer treatment until after her son Rory was born.
Teaching international security, Louise’s award-winning lectures on terrorism were popular amongst the Harvard undergraduates; she attributes this to her enjoyment of being surrounded by young people. However, in keeping with the Harvard practice of not promoting its own, she was overlooked for tenure in 2000 and moved to Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study where she was Executive Dean until 2008. During her 20 years at Harvard, Louise published a series of influential books addressing international security and become one of only a few female specialists in the field. Until 2001, terrorism was a relatively niche area of academia but the Al-Qaeda 9/11 attacks thrust it – and her – into the limelight. Unlike others with more bombastic approaches, Louise brought both a historically-grounded and trans-Atlantic perspective to countering terrorism, favouring diplomacy over military intervention. This was not always well-received, particularly when she described the American response to 9/11 as an “over-reaction”.
Her 2009 appointment as Principal of St Andrews University and Professor of International Relations brought its own conflict. As St Andrews’ first female lead, she was denied the traditional perk of membership to the male-only Royal & Ancient Golf club. Louise received taunts from its diehard members but, despite their delight, the single sex policy was later overturned. Later, during the Scottish referendum, Louise resisted personal pressure from then-First Minister Alex Salmond to support nationalism, instead urging her colleagues to encourage open debate around Scotland’s future. In 2016, she became Vice Chancellor of Oxford. In this role she has overseen the reorganisation of the administrative structure, endorsed closer working with industry via the Oxford Sciences Enterprises (OSE), steered the university through the pandemic, headed campaigns to improve admissions of students from underrepresented backgrounds and engaged in fundraising initiatives that have netted hundreds of millions of pounds. The role has not been plain-sailing as debates over the Cecil Rhodes statue, academic salaries, Brexit, freedom of speech, COVID-19 and university pensions have each posed significant challenges. However, throughout, Louise maintains her inclusive approach to learning and debate, reflected in her quote from her late friend the poet Seamus Heaney: “the books stood open and the gates unbarred”.
We talk about resilience and Louise expresses her concern that upcoming generations feel they are entitled to be happy and negative emotions are labelled as mental health problems. “I’ve had a fair amount of tragedy in my life and it’s OK to be sad”. For Louise, living alone in Oxford during COVID-19 was “miserable”, especially with the sudden deaths of her father in Ireland and that of one of her closest friends, but she resisted despair by focusing her energies on specific projects.
As she moves back to USA in 2023 to take over the leadership of New York’s Carnegie Foundation, Louise is proud that her successor Prof Irene Tracey was selected from an all-female shortlist. She notes ruefully that if a woman is unsuccessful in any role she will never be replaced by another, so sees the women replacing her in Oxford and St Andrews as a positive endorsement. She was delighted to be awarded a Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to higher education in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list earlier this year. Shockingly, Louise alludes to ongoing experiences of sexism but won’t be drawn on the topic and sees no benefit on dwelling on slights. Her main message is not to be bitter towards one’s opponents, nor to indulge in negative thinking: “women have come such a long way, I prefer to see the glass half-full. As I tell my daughters, success is the best revenge”.