Saturday, June 13, 2009

BTO: A meeting of minds

Business Times - 13 Jun 2009

A meeting of minds

Anthropologist-turned-university leader Alison Richard spent 30 years in America at Yale before returning to her alma mater, Cambridge, as vice-chancellor in 2003. She talks about the challenges facing the 800-year-old British university. By Anna Teo

AS stereotypes go, Alison Richard may not quite come across as an anthropologist, or simply one who might spend months on end tracking lemurs in remote jungles.

But after 40 minutes with her, it's soon apparent she would indeed be as much at home out in the forests and foothills of Madagascar - which figured for a good part of her early professional life - as she is in the ivory towers of academe, where she was the top academic officer of Yale, and since 2003, Cambridge. Petite and professorial, she has at the same time a down-to-earth, easy-going mien about her, plus humour and spunk - all of which stand one in good stead for stints outdoors, not least when pursuing primates in less than lush environs.

Her appointment at Cambridge makes her the first full-time female vice-chancellor of the British university, which turned 800 this year, and marked for herself a return to her alma mater after 30 years in America in Yale University, the last eight as provost.

After studying anthropology at Cambridge's Newnham College, she obtained a doctorate at London University, and then 'was offered a job', she tells BT about the move to America.

'I never imagined when I went out to the States in 1972 because I was offered a job at Yale that that would be the next 30 years of my life,' she says. 'But my husband is from the US, I stayed, and ended up as a professor at Yale.' She later became director of the renowned Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and then Yale provost, continuing, all the while, even after leaving Yale's department of anthropology, to keep up her earlier research interests in lemurs via short-term stints.

'I'm a biological anthropologist, and I'm interested in the evolution of social systems and I'd been working in Madagascar primarily, but also in central America, West Africa and Pakistan over the years,' she tells BT. 'But I'm most known for my work in Madagascar on the non-human primates there - yes, lemurs, which are very interesting animals.

'Well, they are primates, like monkeys, apes and humans, but they have evolved in isolation for about 70 million years on the island of Madagascar, and so the way in which they put together their social systems is different. And so by studying, as it were, the exceptions to the rule, perhaps that can give us insights into the rules. For example, in most non-human primates, males are socially dominant, they are bigger than the females, and they are socially dominant to the females. In Madagascar lemurs, males and females are the same size, and females are socially dominant to males. Why, is the question.' But there isn't time during the interview for her to answer the question, she says, laughing.

Her doctoral thesis focused on a particular species of lemurs in Madagascar that live in both desert forests and fairly luxuriant jungles. 'So you have the same species living under very harsh dry conditions, and then under very luxuriant conditions. If the environment determines and shapes social systems, one would expect to find differences in the social systems of this one species, which would be evidence that nurture, as it were, the environment, shapes social systems.

'And so I spent 18 months studying social groups in these two very different environments, and I did find differences that I attributed to differences in the environment, differences in the distances these animals travelled, differences in the amount of play that the young engaged in, differences in the size of groups and so on.'

While she hopes that her work informs thinking about the evolution of social systems, 'I don't think you can go from lemurs and say, aha, so therefore humans...', she says. 'But I must confess that my life as vice-chancellor at Cambridge is so utterly consuming that there is not much time left for thinking about anthropology.

' I still go out to Madagascar every summer, really to support my former graduate students who have now themselves academic positions and so they are leading the research programme there now. But I'm very much involved in conservation and local community partnerships to try to conserve the forests in south-west Madagascar which are under threat, as forests are in many places. So, that's still two or three weeks in the summer; that's all I can do.'

Irresistible offer

After three decades in America, Prof Richard hadn't planned on returning to the United Kingdom, 'but Cambridge was irresistible', she says. 'It is one of the great universities of the world, doing what it does with a fraction of the financial resources of some of our peers and competitors in the US, but doing it brilliantly but with some opportunities to make some changes.

'And one of the changes, indeed, that I'm trying to make is to include our alumni much more in the life of the university because our alumni are our best ambassadors. They can write about us, talk about us, encourage students to apply, give us advice, some of which we will take and some of which we won't. And alumni, of course, are also, along with friends, great financial supporters of the university, and that's not a custom in the UK.

'But as part of our 800th anniversary celebration, we launched a fund-raising campaign to raise a billion pounds, and we've now raised over 800 million. So it's going extremely well, and I think it is bringing Cambridge and its community together with a shared sense of purpose and determination to support the university going forward. So it's a very exciting time. We know, with world financial and economic markets in turmoil and difficulty, that it's not an easy time, but this is where it's good to be able to say, well, we've been around for 800 years, we've seen our share of difficulties over history, we will survive this and come out with our flags flying.'

Having been well immersed in both the American and British university systems, what does she see as the relative strengths and weaknesses of each?

It's 'difficult' to talk about strengths and weaknesses, Prof Richard says.

'It's more that they are different. People ask me how Cambridge is different from Yale, and at one level, what I can say is - at Yale, I used to spend my days surrounded by some of the brightest and most interesting people I'd ever met, thinking about working on really interesting subjects. This is true at Cambridge as well,' she says with a laugh.

'They are both great universities. But, of course, one of the great distinctive features about Cambridge is its collegiate system. It's the genius of scale; it's how you can be simultaneously a great research-intensive university, and then have these human-scaled communities - the 31 colleges - that are inter-disciplinary, inter-generational, so they are really sort of melting pots for ideas, for bringing people together, to live together, work together, play together, and in the case of our undergraduates, do some growing up together. That is a quite remarkable and unique feature of Cambridge, and indeed, of Oxford, that one doesn't see in US universities.

' What the US has done in its approach to undergraduate education - it's a four-year programme instead of three years - is it begins with more expectations about the breadth of subjects that students are expected to study. That of course maps on to the way in which the education system works in the United States - you couldn't take a Cambridge system and put it into the US, because US students wouldn't have enough knowledge to be able to follow a Cambridge course, because it is deep and it expects a higher level of knowledge. But you couldn't take a Yale programme and put it in Cambridge because the students would say, 'oh, we already know this'. So there is a difference in the depth and breadth of the undergraduate programmes in the US and in the UK in general.'

But Cambridge has an ongoing exchange programme with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where every year, 40 students from each university spend a year on the other campus, she adds.

'They learn a lot from each others' systems actually. But what is also interesting is that the academics who are teaching each others' students see qualities in the other students that they don't see in their own students. And both at MIT and at Cambridge, the academics are changing the way they teach in order to try to develop some of the qualities that they see in each others' students. So I think what one could say is that it's a very good thing to have both, because one can learn and challenge from these different systems.

'And I'm very interested because it seems to me that Singapore is very thoughtful in that regard, and is taking elements of the UK system, which is really the historic system here, and sort of incorporating some elements of the US system, and really thinking, in very innovative ways, about not just higher education, but also primary and secondary education.'

As a member of Singapore's International Academic Advisory Panel that guides the broad direction of university education here, Prof Richard is in touch with developments here.

When pressed about advising anyone to take either the UK or US route, she says: 'I think it depends on the student, depends on the course; one size does not fit all. Students who know clearly what they want to do can whiz through a Cambridge undergraduate and postgraduate degree, as I myself did.'

In any case, she's a great believer in choices, she adds. 'So what I would say to you is that - Yale is my absolutely favourite US university, and Cambridge is my absolutely favourite UK university; that makes my life very easy,' she quips.

Just days before her visit here, came news that Cambridge is raising its entry criteria from three A-level distinctions to include at least one A*.

Prof Richard is quick to clarify and assure that the new criteria apply only to UK students, and not to foreigners.

Singapore students

'The fact of the matter is, the students that we admit, from Singapore and from all over the world, and UK, are extraordinarily bright. And we think, because we looked very closely at their marks in the modules in the run-up to the A-levels and AS-levels, and used interviews and all kinds of other information, that it (the new criteria) actually won't make a lot of difference; we are in effect (already) accepting the students who will get the A*s. That's what we think.

'And certainly the Singapore students - of whom we have more now in Cambridge today than we have had for a decade, almost 200 students, which is wonderful - they are uniformly regarded as absolutely outstanding students.'

But the question of admissions is a 'very complicated' one, she says.

'Cambridge admissions tutors are looking not only for academic attainment but also for potential. Who are the students who will continue to flourish, and continue to develop and grow academically, intellectually, and make a contribution going forward? So it's weighing two things - it's weighing what has already been accomplished, but it's also assessing what that student is capable of, going forward. So, as I always say, it is an art, not a science. If it were a science, it would be easy - you take a bunch of numbers and you say, aha, we have 13,000 students, let's rank them from 1 to 13,000 and we'll take the top 3,500. But talent doesn't work that way; it doesn't come in linear ways. Students' talents manifest themselves in different ways, and the judgement of their potential is hard to do. Indeed, the judgement of their attainment is not altogether an easy thing.'

At 800 today, Cambridge, the fourth oldest university in the world, continues to grapple with its share of challenges.

'It has to be said, I think, that the biggest challenge for the university is being able to have the financial support, particularly for the support of students,' says Prof Richard. 'We would like to be able to provide full financial support for larger numbers of postgraduate students than we currently do. We provide quite substantial support but increasingly, I think, we are competing for the most talented students - postgraduate students - not just with other universities, but with all the other things they might be doing with their lives. And so I believe that we need to make big investments there and that's important to do. So I would say that financial matters are important.'

A second challenge is a fairly 'happy and interesting' one, she says.

'The world is becoming so globally connected now, and universities are no exception, that occasionally I worry that I would wake up one morning and find that there is nobody left in Cambridge because all of our academics are out in partnerships with colleagues and programmes around the world. And so a question that we are thinking a lot about is - how can we build our global network of partners so that it is strategic and beneficial to Cambridge and to our partners but without losing that great sense of place and the haunting beauty and specialness of being part of a community in the place of Cambridge?

'And obviously I'm here in Singapore because one of our long-term partners is most surely the community here in Singapore, both from NUS and SMU and NTU, but also through our work with Cambridge International Examinations, through Cambridge University Press placed here, through our work with A*Star, and perhaps in the future with Biopolis and Fusionpolis. I mean, there are all kinds of very interesting activities and very creative thinking here in Singapore.'

Her own transition from scientist to university leader, since Yale, had been 'quite a change', she says, but not in any sense jarring.

'I think one of the things that I learned during the years working with village communities in Madagascar was that the skills of bringing people together are the same the world over. In south-west Madagascar, I was working with communities where most people couldn't read or write, so in that sense they're very, very different from a community of Cambridge academics or Yale academics. But in another sense, they're no different at all, because the fact is, humans are humans, whether they can read or write or not. And it's bringing people together with a shared sense of purpose. If you can do that, anything is possible, because people are working together.

'But, of course, a defining quality of a great academic institution is argument and debate, the constant contesting of ideas, the contesting of propositions, and so there is a tension in the process of trying to bring consensus, trying to lead, on the one hand, in the full knowledge that if you could really achieve full consensus, you would worry, because the university would not be functioning as it should be functioning,' she laughs. 'Well, I see no danger of that happening at Cambridge - there are many very lively and excellent debates.'


Vice-chancellor, University of Cambridge

1948: Born in Kent, England

First degree in anthropology from University of Cambridge, and doctorate from University of London

1972: Joined faculty of Yale University

1986: Professor of anthropology at Yale, and chair of its Department of Anthropology

1991: Director, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

1994: Provost, Yale University

2003: Vice-chancellor, University of Cambridge

Member of the World Wildlife Fund National Council 

Director of the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation dedicated to the survival of wildlife and wildlands

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