A happy appointment: In praise of Oxford’s first female vice-chancellor


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The appointment of Professor Louise Richardson to be vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford is significant for a number of reasons.

First, she is a distinct outsider, as an Irishwoman moving from a Scottish university, St Andrews. She may well bring some fresh thinking to an institution that can tend towards insularity. Second, of course, is that she is the first female to hold this important position. It is a shame that this particular glass ceiling has not cracked before, during the post’s near 800-year history, but we hope that the verdict in the senior common rooms will be “better late than never”.

Professor Richardson faces a number of challenges. Of particular interest to those outside the university is what she will be able to do to encourage social mobility. Oxford has long stated its ambition to open itself up to bright students from less-privileged backgrounds, but with mixed results. There is little the university can do to influence state secondary education, but the new vice-chancellor will soon have an opportunity to pass some sort of verdict on the past 25 years of dizzying reform and counter-reform in our schools.

Second, the vice-chancellor needs to take a lead in tackling what appears to be some surprisingly rife sexual harassment. For obvious reasons, she may be listened to when she raises this ugly subject with her colleagues.

Third, she needs to lobby Government to ensure that the university receives the funding it needs to remain a world-class institution, whether from fees or elsewhere. As some colleges have found at some cost to their reputations, academic excellence and pioneering research can never be taken for granted.

As a federal university where almost all of the real power rests with the 44 colleges and halls, Professor Richardson will have to rely on her powers of persuasion to effect real change. She will soon encounter the forces of conservatism; they should, however, recall her success in pushing the old buffers at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews to allow women to become members. After that, the dons should be a doddle.