Alison Richard: The Quiet Revolutionary

On Friday, November 10, 2006, the Guardian published a correction regarding the word "bailiwick." It was clarified that the term refers to an area under particular authority, derived from the rule of a bailie or bailiff, and not from bailey, the outer wall of a castle.

In another correction printed on Thursday, November 2, 2006, the Guardian provided an update to an article that mentioned a member of the Cambridge University investment board. The individual’s name was David Swenson, not Svenson.

Alison Richard, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, does not believe in simply telling her colleagues what to do. In her fourth year in the position, she prefers to challenge them to think about problems and engage in debate. During her October 1st speech, which was actually given on October 2nd due to Cambridge’s unique customs, she expressed her concern about the lack of focus on undergraduate teaching in research-intensive universities and the challenges of combining research and teaching. Richard believes that the current system experiences "ambiguities and confusion" regarding the roles of college-based staff and the pressure on faculty-based staff to excel in research.

Although Richard did not provide a solution, she speaks confidently about her bailiwick, despite the opposing issues of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor, John Hood, who is facing resistance to his governance reforms. Throughout her four years in office, Richard has focused on building a team to "mobilise and catalyse the momentum of the institution" and has eliminated the university’s budget deficit. Additionally, the university has shifted its budget to the schools within Cambridge and there is a constant effort to balance the importance of allowing independent research while promoting collaborative efforts between colleagues.

When Richard arrived in 2003, she had to handle the controversial topic of top-up fees. However, she managed to consolidate the colleges and her new colleagues to design a needs-blind bursary system, which was the first of its kind announced. The successful implementation of this program helped her to launch governance reforms, a £1bn fundraising campaign for Cambridge’s 800th anniversary in 2009, and a new pay structure. Despite some opposition, the university’s new rules on intellectual property rights were ultimately approved.

The perception was that running a campaign for the vice-chancellor’s position at Cambridge University was too big of a task with 31 colleges to consider. However, the vice-chancellor’s experience is that there is a sense of purpose amongst all the colleges. Although it is more challenging to streamline admissions and fundraising efforts when working together, it is possible with a defined goal. The message is that they can either compete and waste time and resources or collaborate and raise more money. However, the vice-chancellor did not force anyone to work together, emphasizing that telling people what to do is not an effective strategy. She believes they are all in this together. Colleges are essential, but they have no real existence without the academic departments and the University of Cambridge. But she thinks unanimous agreement is not desirable as there should be room for debate and rigorous debate. The vice-chancellor has turned her attention to promoting international links amongst the top research universities. She is concerned about the underfunding of undergraduate education and social justice. Cambridge has set up a bursary system to achieve a level playing field. To enable poorer students to attend university, living expenses also need covering, and the bursary system should be adjusted if necessary. Her long-term aim is to free Cambridge from overdependence on the government, and she hopes to achieve this through fundraising efforts. She opposes the idea of privatizing the university and prefers the pragmatic approach of growing themselves out of dependence on the government. They are considering a voucher system in the future where the government provides needs-based bursaries to students to carry with them. However, this is a long way off.

Alison Richard received a tremendous response from the university and alumni after her speech in October, though it was ignored by the press. She is open to new ideas and debates regarding teaching methods and what students should learn. Having spent many years in the American system, she originally thought that students should start with a broad education and specialize later, but many in Cambridge believe the opposite. Richard admits that she doesn’t know the answers to some of the questions surrounding this debate, as she is new to the system and hasn’t taught in it. She believes that implementing top-down directives for curriculums would be harmful. As vice-chancellor, her responsibility is to ensure that topics are being discussed and thought about. It remains to be seen whether Richard, who has focused on Cambridge, will throw out new challenges on a national level.

Alison Richard is the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, overseeing 31 colleges, 8,500 staff, and 18,000 students. The university has an annual turnover of £646m and net assets of £1.5bn. Richard was an anthropology student at Newnham College, Cambridge, before earning her doctorate at London University. She moved to Yale University in 1972 and became a professor of anthropology in 1986 and a provost in 1994. Her research specializes in the lemurs of Madagascar. She is married and has two grown-up daughters.


  • bensonsimpson

    Hi! I'm Benson Simpson, a 35-year-old educational blogger and teacher. I write about educational topics such as student motivation, creativity, and effective teaching techniques. I also run a blog about creativity and learning, which you can find at



Hi! I'm Benson Simpson, a 35-year-old educational blogger and teacher. I write about educational topics such as student motivation, creativity, and effective teaching techniques. I also run a blog about creativity and learning, which you can find at