'I want to be a terrific head, not a terrific woman head'

The new principal of St Andrews has made history. Olga Wojtas meets a terrorism expert from Harvard

June 19, 2008

At almost 600 years old, the University of St Andrews has become the first of the Scottish ancients to appoint a female principal.

But while Louise Richardson says her appointment puts the lie to any notion that St Andrews, alma mater of Prince William, is stuffy or old fashioned, she refuses to play the gender card.

"I hope I will be known as a terrific principal and not a terrific woman principal," said Dr Richardson, current executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, who takes over at St Andrews in January.

She already knows the university well: her research specialism is the study of terrorism and political violence. The field was pioneered by St Andrews, which established the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, Europe's first, in 1994.

Her interest in the topic did not stem from abstract scholarship. She grew up in a staunchly Republican area of rural Ireland in the 1960s and early 1970s. After British Army soldiers opened fire on civil-rights protesters on Bloody Sunday in 1972, the teenage Richardson would have "joined the IRA in a heartbeat", she wrote in her acclaimed 2006 book, What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy.

Intellectually ambitious, she went to study history at Trinity College Dublin, which had historically educated the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. She found it a greater culture shock than her subsequent move from Ireland to the United States.

"I learnt a very different version of Irish history, and it fascinated me how two groups of well-meaning people could have entirely different interpretations of the same event," she said.

After earning a bachelors and a masters in history at Trinity College, she took an MA and a PhD in international relations at the University of California at Los Angeles and Harvard respectively, shifting subjects to get away from Irish nationalism.

She found the existing research on terrorism to be very weak, with terrorists depicted as "one-dimensional bad guys and psychopaths, inconsistent with what I had seen".

She began to research terrorist movements in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.

"I was looking at how they function and recruit and manage to persuade people who in other parts of their lives might be upstanding citizens and good parents to commit atrocities that violate every norm of civilised behaviour," she said.

"My interest in understanding terrorism should not be confused with an effort to sympathise with them. My whole argument about counterterrorism is that to combat terrorism, you have to understand the nature of the adversary you face. There isn't a single silver bullet."

But although terrorists' strategies and organisations may vary, their aims are summed up succinctly in What Terrorists Want as revenge, renown and reaction.

Despite her expertise, Dr Richardson is wary of commenting on how the terrorist threat in Britain compares with that in the US. "I would never want to use the position of principal of St Andrews as a soapbox to express my political views."

She has been approached in the past about vice-chancellorships by headhunters from both North America and Europe, but St Andrews's bid was opportune. For the past seven years, Dr Richardson has been senior administrative officer at the Radcliffe Institute and had recently been seeking fresh challenges.

"I've been at Harvard a long time - as student, faculty member and administrator - and I felt it was time to open a new chapter in my life. Given where the children were in their schooling, I had identified this as a good year to make a move."

Her elder daughter, aged 19, has just begun university; her younger daughter, aged 16, will complete boarding school next year; and her son, aged 14, has just graduated from middle school.

Dr Richardson's husband, Thomas Jevon, is a GP with strong involvement in public health in the Boston area. He is planning to work in Scotland.

"Part of the enormous attraction of St Andrews to me was that it is a relatively small institution that is research intensive as well as taking teaching very, very seriously. It's hard to do both, and St Andrews has really been successful. I'm absolutely committed to continuing this tradition."

St Andrews, which will shortly celebrate its 600th anniversary, has 6,800 students, 5,700 of them undergraduates. For many years, it has attracted a significant number of American students. Scotland's broad-based four-year honours degree is more readily comparable to the US system, Dr Richardson says, and she is happy to see an above-average number of international students. "The more diverse the student body, the stronger it is," she said.

She is concerned by Scotland's post-devolution stance on tuition fees. Since fees have been axed for Scottish students, there are no top-ups, and Dr Richardson believes this puts Scotland at a competitive disadvantage in the UK.

"Having said that, the idea of education having no economic barriers is wonderful."

This puts the onus on Scottish universities to be more creative in diversifying sources of revenue.

Dr Richardson will be working to raise St Andrews's endowments. "I have a lot of experience fundraising. The Harvard fundraising machine is second to none, and I've learnt a great deal from my colleagues."

She believes it is impossible to spend money on a more worthwhile cause than education, which creates social mobility, responsible citizens and economic growth. "I hope to continue to try to persuade people to invest in education."

olga.wojtas@tsleducation.com.

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