Steely veteran with a cold eye on bottom line

December 6, 2002

Top-up fees, debt and moves to reform governance make for turbulent times at Cambridge, so how will Alison Richard, its first female vice-chancellor, weather the storm? Walter Ellis expects heads to roll

Alison Richard, whose nomination to succeed Sir Alec Broers as vice-chancellor of Cambridge has just been confirmed, is no stranger to the concept of culture shock. Richard, a leading anthropologist best known for her work on the lemurs of Madagascar, left Britain decades ago for the warmer academic climes of the US, where she has since risen to become provost of Yale and one of America's leading university administrators.

But it is one thing to have crossed the Atlantic from east to west; making the return journey is notoriously difficult.

Not only will Richard, 54, be the first female chief executive of Cambridge in its 800-year history, but her nomination comes at a time when the future of university funding in Britain is shrouded in mystery. Cambridge itself is dangerously underresourced and the idea of elitism in higher education has become the subject of bitter debate.

The battles she has fought, and for the most part won, in America should stand her in good stead, yet they may come to pale against the struggle about to unfold.

The second-oldest of England's ancient universities, widely regarded as the country's finest, has done much to modernise itself in recent years. But reforms have come at a cost. The Old Guard and Young Turks are at each other's throats. As cash flow has lapsed into the red, no one seems to know which direction to go - or where future financing will come from. But salvation could be at hand. As Cambridge moves deeper into the 21st century, it has found a leader skilled in factional infighting and personnel management who, while cherishing academic freedom and the demands of scholarship, knows that the bottom line is how much money you have got and how you spend it.

So what should the dons expect from their new vice-chancellor, who has not been at Cambridge since she was an undergraduate in the 1960s? First, they will see a strong, no-nonsense approach and cold-eyed professionalism. Richard would not pretend to have transformed Yale, which has always been one of the world's highest-endowed universities, but as its leading fundraiser and financial organiser since 1994, she has boosted its income and streamlined the processes by which budgets are allocated and accounted. At the same time, she has been a strong advocate of women, helping ensure that Yale is now one of the most open, gender-blind academic environments in America. If there is anyone in the Fens who still believes a woman's place is next to the photocopier, they are in for a rude awakening.

After her appointment as provost of Yale, Richard compared her situation to that of aristocrats on their way to the guillotine during the French revolution. "When the tumbrel carrying condemned prisoners was brought past, the crowd looked on with pity," she said. "I suspect that many of you will look at me with the same expression." Even given the fact that many Parisians were only too delighted to watch the blade fall on their oppressors, it is just as likely that it will be Richard who organises the tumbrels and her fellow academics - at least those who stand against the revolution - who will be the victims of a short, sharp shock.

Like most anthropologists, Richard is not sentimental. Obliged over the past two years to face up to continuing demands by postgraduates at Yale for better conditions and union representation, she made it clear that, much though she valued liberty and freedom of speech, it was the reasoned, enlightened voice of authority to which she hearkened most naturally. The graduate students were, of course, entitled to their point of view, but it would be her view, and that of the university's governing elite, that would in the end decide the issue.

Not that Richard lacks a benign side to her personality. During her term as director of Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History (1990-94), she was determined to attract non-academics, especially young people, back into what had become a rather stuffy and neglected national resource. Working with the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies, she initiated a $20 million (£12.8 million) fund drive to create an environmental science centre and greatly improved facilities for the museum's collection of more than 11 million specimens. Just as important, according to Leo Buss, director of the institute: "She galvanised the staff in a way that had never been accomplished."

But, with Cambridge likely to be forced to confront the issues of top-up fees and, more generally, the scale of fundraising necessary to keep its place among the world's leading universities, it will be Richard's ability to encourage high-value US-style "giving" that will make or break her tenure as vice-chancellor.

Much of the groundwork for Yale's enviable financial strength (its endowment is valued at an impressive $7.3 billion) was laid not by Richard but by her predecessor as provost, Judith Rodin, now president of another Ivy League institution, the University of Pennsylvania. Richard, however, having introduced new spending disciplines, today presides over an investment portfolio, managed largely by highly placed alumni, that grew by 9.2 per cent in 2001, far ahead of Wall Street.

Provosts at Yale have to be multifaceted. Richard spearheads fundraising, attending innumerable dinners and other functions at which alumni are persuaded to sign cheques that sometimes run into millions of dollars. At the same time, she has to negotiate complex deals with corporations (some of which can make unacceptable demands), allocate departmental budgets and explain to hapless colleagues the price, quite literally, of failure. Finally, in the manner of a mother superior humbling herself by mopping out the convent latrines, she is responsible for every item of official expenditure right down to the choice of toilet paper in the undergraduate dormitories. "The provost is more concerned with the day-to-day running of Yale than any other person," says deputy provost Charles Long. "There is no problem that is not the provost's problem."

Richard, who after Cambridge acquired a PhD from the University of London, lays claim to a formidable record. While maintaining close contact with her academic discipline - a process that has involved field trips to Africa and joint papers with her husband, Robert Dewar, professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut - she has overseen the finances and infrastructural refurbishment of an institution larger than many corporations. Only the Yale president, Richard Levin, enjoys greater prestige.

That, however, is already in the past. The extent to which she can import the distinctive can-do approach of US fundraising to the Fens remains to be seen. British alumni are less "grateful" for their education than their US counterparts, and it has not been easy to persuade them to repay a debt they do not feel they owe.

Equally problematic may be Richard's anticipated drive to improve the status of women at Cambridge. In the US, although female academics still complain of career discrimination and a glass ceiling, solid progress has been made in the past ten years. Three of the eight Ivy League institutions now have female presidents: Rodin at Pennsylvania, Shirley Tilghman at Princeton, and Ruth Simmons at Brown. Other leading universities, including Duke (Nannerl Keohane) and Michigan (Mary Sue Coleman), are run by women. In England, Richard will be one of only a handful of top female administrators. Should she attempt to repeat her performance at Yale, where she increased the number of senior female members in the arts and sciences faculties by a third in seven years, she can expect stiff resistance from diehards.

For now, with Broers remaining at Cambridge's helm until the end of the academic year, Richard has time to read herself into her new role and to come to terms with what will undoubtedly be a tricky re-entry into British academic life. One statistic might depress her: much play was made in the official Cambridge Reporter in October of the fact that five new women professors had just been appointed. No space at all was given to the fact that the other 26 were men.

UK academe is still a man's world
Despite the recent appointment of Brenda Gourley at the Open University and Glynis Breakwell at Bath University, female vice-chancellors are painfully thin on the ground in the UK.

This is part of a more widespread problem regarding promotion of women to senior positions in universities.

Despite a plethora of equality initiatives, the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Academic Staff, Trends and Projections report predicts that women will still make up only half of senior lecturers by 2032 and half of professors by 2040.

Women academics hold only about 12 per cent of professorships and 24 per cent of senior lectureships. In some subjects, the numbers present an even gloomier picture: in maths, women make up about 5 per cent of professorships.

Much of the blame is put on career breaks, but the Association of University Teachers says there is substantial evidence that women are passed over for promotion because they tend to take on more administrative and teaching duties, which are less highly regarded in the promotion stakes than other duties.

And then there is pay. Even when women are on the same level as male academics, they tend to be paid less.

The AUT says male lecturers and researchers are far more likely than women to enjoy discretionary salary points awarded by employers when they reach the top of the scale.

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