Alison Richard: First lady of Cambridge University

Since her historic appointment as vice-chancellor, Alison Richard has kept a low profile. Now, in a rare interview, she talks to Lucy Hodges about how she is bringing change to an ancient institution
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When Professor Alison Richard arrived at Cambridge to run that ancient institution there was much muttering about the impossible task this unassuming anthropologist had taken on.

The new vice-chancellor resembles a middle-aged version of Hermione from the Harry Potter books - small, friendly and blue-stocking, sitting in her Hogwarts-style office with awesome views of King's College chapel. How has she coped with the awkward dons and cumbersome management structure, described by her predecessor as "abominable"?

In 2003, the university was still reeling from the Capsa debacle, when a new and disastrous computer system had been installed and millions of pounds wasted. Moreover, Cambridge was seriously in the red and academics had rejected an important reform in the way the university ran itself.

But, two years on, things are beginning to look rosier. At the end of 2005, Richard managed to secure the agreement of the staff - in the teeth of bitter opposition - to changes in their intellectual property rights, which would mean their sharing with the university the proceeds of any inventions or spin-out companies. This was a victory of substance, as well as a sign that Richard was capable of modernising the ancient institution.

In addition, she won another battle against the university's historic deficit. When she arrived from the number two job at Yale, Cambridge was in the red to the tune of £10m. Applying the lessons she learnt during her time in America, Richard has virtually eliminated that. Today, the university has more or less broken even, a lesson that a university budget, however inadequate, can be brought under control.

The vice-chancellor, the first woman to be put in charge of Cambridge, may lack physical presence but she is showing that she can get things done. In her first major interview for some time, Richard appeared cheerful and upbeat, as all vice-chancellors must.

And she had cause to give herself a pat on the back. "Our endowment has performed better than we had anticipated," she says. "We had a serious savings programme in place under our devolved budget programme and those savings are taking hold."

But husbanding resources successfully is nowhere near enough to secure Cambridge's future, which is why Richard has announced an ambitious fund-raising campaign to coincide with the university's 800th birthday in 2009. The campaign has been launched in London, New York and San Francisco already, and it will be rolled out to Hong Kong and Beijing this year.

The American gigs were glittering events, with David Starkey and Stephen Hawking wowing receptions that were crowded to bursting point. "They were so enthusiastic," says Richard. "It was like they had been waiting for this to happen. The only negative comment was: 'We'll help you, vice-chancellor, but you've got to get those folk in England giving as well.'"

In a move that borrows heavily from her American experience, the vice-chancellor is setting out to build up the endowment, now £3bn (against Yale's £8bn and MIT's £4.5bn), by raising another £1bn by 2012. "The American institutions have a multiplicity of revenue sources," she says. "I just want to rebalance and strengthen ours so that we can invest more in our staff, provide more graduate fellowships and more in the way of bursaries."

Ten per cent of alumni give to Cambridge; Richard would like to increase that rate to 30 per cent. "There hasn't been a habit of giving but we have not had a habit of asking."

This fund-raising campaign annoys the sceptics, who say that alumni won't give to the university because their first loyalty is towards their college. Some colleges are threatened by the thought that the university is trying to grab money they would otherwise receive.

Richard points out that she has agreed a memorandum of understanding with the colleges. All money donated will be treated as contributing to the campaign. "Are there no tensions in this?" she asks. "Of course there are tensions. I am not a fool."

She is certainly not that, which is why she decided not to continue the struggle to reform Cambridge's governance structure. Her predecessor Lord Broers had done what he could but had failed to get the vice-chancellor made into more of a chief executive figure.

Asked whether she is satisfied with the governance, she says. "Let me duck that question and say that governance change involves the formulation of proposals, massive debate about those, then a decision and, finally, implementation. In the couple of years before I was appointed vice-chancellor, the first three of those had taken place. I have been implementing decisions that were taken to very good effect."

One of those changes is to have two external members on Cambridge's ruling council. (Oxford is proposing that half of its council come from outside.) That is Cambridge's answer to the Lambert report that asked whether the university was capable of sorting out its affairs quickly enough to remain world-class. Richard believes the university has done what it needs to ensure outside representation on the governing body and that further attempts to wring changes from dons would be counter-productive.

She says: "There are opportunity costs if your governance is dysfunctional but there are also opportunity costs associated with debating governance because everyone gets tied up in knots. So, at different moments there are judgement calls to be made. If we had spent the past two years debating governance, we would not have been launching our fund-raising campaign because we would have been preoccupied."

Unlike John Hood, Oxford's vice-chancellor, who has had bruising confrontations with dons, Richard has played it low-key, taking a quintessentially pragmatic approach.

A diplomat by nature and a former Cambridge academic, albeit one who was transplanted to America for 21 years, she understands and knows the place. Cambridge, like Oxford, is always going to be in a unique position because of the college system, she says. That will never change. "To me, for Cambridge, it's less a governance issue than figuring out ways to work together effectively."

On admissions, for example, the university collapsed a series of committees into a single structure on policy and strategy co-chaired by a senior pro-vice-chancellor and a senior tutor. That brings the colleges and university together in decision-making and, it is hoped, will enable admissions to be transparent and fair.

Cambridge, like Oxford, is concerned with access. Richard believes that it is more important to recruit students from the poorest groups of society than from state schools. At the moment Cambridge takes 9 per cent of students from the poorest group, though the official performance indicators suggest it should be taking 13 per cent. Numbers are moving in the right direction, she says. The important thing is to build relationships with schools in deprived areas.

"If you go in once and you get everybody fired up and the school gets their brightest students to apply and then those students don't get in, the school says: 'Well, to hell with them.' You have to work with schools over time, and sometimes those students will get in."

Richard is as Tiggerish about the Cambridge-MIT Institute as she is about governance. The Cambridge MIT project, funded to the tune of £68m by Gordon Brown, was an attempt to make the university - indeed, all universities - more entrepreneurial by improving the exchange of information between higher education and business. It has been dogged by allegations that little has been achieved and that the money disappeared down a big, black hole.

Richard denies that. The money, she says, went on an exchange programme with MIT students and innovative Mphil programmes at the intersection of science, business and entrepreneurship. Some went on research that brought together engineers, industry, policy-makers and academe early on. The rest went on outreach - getting the message out to other universities and organisations.

Cambridge plans to keep it going when the money runs out and has just won its first bit of competitive funding. MIT really values the relationship, Richard says, and so does Cambridge. Moreover, the Treasury is happy. "Everyone is feeling much better about this than they were."

Sometimes Richard sounds Polyannaish about the intractable problems with which she is having to grapple. At the same time, she leaves little doubt that she is aware of them. Being a vice-chancellor is not like being chief executive of a company, she says. "Most chief executives bring people together with a shared sense of purpose. We recruit people because they are brilliant scholars and teachers. If they are team players, that's a bonus."

The message is that Richard knows Cambridge's idiosyncrasies and is working round them. For all the criticism of the place, it is doing amazingly well, she emphasises. The research budget is growing at 8 per cent a year and has been doubling every decade. "I think we are unique among UK universities to have such a rapid rate of increase.

"Cambridge is on a roll," she declares in public-relations speak. "The excitement and the sense of energy and opportunity here are remarkable. It's part of what brought me back. I wasn't looking to come back to England and do another incredibly hard job. I had been doing an incredibly hard job for eight-and-a-half years and I wanted to get my life back. But, here I am, with no life whatsoever."