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Professor Alison F. RICHARD

66th Congregation (2009)

Professor Alison F. RICHARD
Doctor of Social Science


Few jobs in academic life can be more challenging than the Vice-Chancellorship of the great and ancient University of Cambridge.  To give leadership to an institution consisting of over thirty autonomous colleges, many of them with wealth, prestige and jealously guarded traditions of self-governance going back centuries, requires a great sense of mission and purpose and more than an ordinary degree of moral and intellectual authority.  The person whose achievements we are privileged to be honouring here this evening possesses these qualities in abundance.  Professor Alison Richard is Cambridge University's three hundred and forty-fourth Vice-Chancellor, and the first woman to hold the position full time. 


When Professor Richard took up the position in 2003, proposals for more strongly centralized governance had just been divisively and inconclusively debated and the University was millions of pounds in deficit.  Putting aside the divisions, Professor Richard set about galvanizing the institution, achieving commonality of purpose and putting the University's finances on a firmer foundation.  Leading from the front, she focused on the institution's core academic mission and values and defined its challenges with a clarity and firmness that has eventually carried the whole University community with her.  She launched an ambitious and highly successful campaign to raise a billion pounds, centered around the University's eight hundredth anniversary in 2009.  Her themes have been investment in the future of teaching and research; reform in the sphere of intellectual property; the elimination of social disadvantage in undergraduate admissions; an enhanced bursary scheme to assist underprivileged students with fees and living expenses; streamlined admission procedures; the creation of more international connections and greater diversity in the University population; enhanced participation of women and minorities in academic life.  Professor Richard is, in short, a visionary, a reformer.


Professor Richard is personally unassuming and down to earth.  She famously rides to work on a bicycle.  The respect she commands comes from her achievements and her qualities of character.  For her, academic leadership turns on transparency, openness to initiatives and ideas from below and the capacity to stimulate debate about the key strategic questions.  When she left Yale University after 30 years' service, eight of them as Provost, the University President described her in the following terms: "In nearly nine years as Provost, Alison has inspired deans, faculty, and administrators by her unwavering commitment to excellence and her unfailing good judgment.  She listens; she cares; she reflects; and she acts with a decisiveness based on both reason and compassion.  She has become a master of finances, but at the core she is a leader of people.  Yale is profoundly grateful for her 30 years of service, and Cambridge is fortunate beyond measure."  Thus it has turned out.  In recent years Cambridge is inevitably ranked among the top three or four universities in the world and the leading university in Europe.  In 2007, the University was named as The Sunday Times University of the Year, especially for its capacity to compete with its richer American counterparts.  Professor Richard has inspired a new belief in the University of Cambridge and its future that reaches well beyond the University itself.

Professor Richard was herself educated at Cambridge, moving to the University of London to do her PhD on primate social systems among primates in Madagascar.  She took up her first academic position in 1972 at Yale University, in the Department of Anthropology.  In 1986 she became a full Professor and Chair of the Department.  Later she served as Director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where she oversaw one of the most important university natural history collections in the United States.  In 1994 she was appointed Provost of Yale, the pivotal leadership role beneath that of the University President, where she had great success in, among other things, strengthening Yale's financial position and expanding its academic programmes.  In 1998 Professor Richard was appointed to the Franklin Muzzy Crosby Chair of the Human Environment.


The primates of Madagascar have been one of the great passions of Professor Richard's life.  Every year she sets aside two weeks in which she returns to study the lemur communities on which she has done her most notable research.  One fascinating characteristic of the communities she works on is that they are dominated by females.  Professor Richard strenuously denies that any easy inferences can be made about human behaviour from such studies.  To understand human beings, she says, you must study humans.  Since 1977 Professor Richard has been significantly involved in attempts to conserve Madagascar's threatened natural heritage and to enhance socio-economic opportunities for people living in around the great forests there.  She has also been involved with professional bodies and scientific advisory councils, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).  In 2005 she was appointed Officier de l'Ordre National (Madagascar).


Professor Richard has received honorary doctorates and other awards from several leading universities, which include Peking University (2004), the University of Antananarivo, Madagascar (2005), York University, Canada (2006), the University of Edinburgh (2006), Queen's University Belfast (2008), Anglia Ruskin University, UK (2008), and Yale University (2009).  In 2008 she received the prestigious Addison Emery Verrill Medal from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.


Since Professor Richard assumed the Vice-Chancellorship of Cambridge, collaborations in academic and research activities have increased significantly between Cambridge and The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).  In July 2006, the Vice-Chancellor of CUHK visited Cambridge and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Professor Richard.  In September 2007, a 10-member CUHK delegation also led by the Vice-Chancellor visited Cambridge to explore new academic partnerships and foster ongoing collaborative research projects between the two universities.  CUHK has been exploring student exchange programmes with three colleges of Cambridge.  Both universities are members of the East-West Alliance, which was formed in April 2007 to explore collaborative research opportunities, foster academic exchange, and promote healthcare and care for humanity.  Since 2006, CUHK has also participated in the establishment of the International Study and Research Centre at Clare Hall, Cambridge.  A Task Force on New Colleges of CUHK visited Cambridge among other places in 2006 to conduct an on-site review of different models of College education and formulated major recommendations on the formation, mission, characteristics and features of the new colleges.  Based on this study, five new colleges have been established at CUHK.  Professor Richard has visited CUHK on many occasions.  She has also made significant contributions to the governance review of CUHK by providing valuable advice to the Council's Task Force on University Governance as a member of the Panel of External Experts.


Mr Chairman, it is my privilege to present to you Professor Alison Richard, distinguished researcher and visionary leader of one of the world's great universities, for the award of the degree of Doctor of Social Science, honoris causa.



This citation is written by Professor David Parker