Oxford University vice-chancellor left ‘shaken by level of threat’ experienced by academics

Prof Dame Louise Richardson - Andrew Crowley
Prof Dame Louise Richardson - Andrew Crowley

Oxford University’s outgoing vice-chancellor has described being “shaken by the level of threat and harassment” experienced by academics as she warned of the challenge of preserving freedom of speech.

Prof Dame Louise Richardson, who was the first woman to become vice-chancellor of the university when she was appointed seven years ago, said she was particularly concerned about threats made towards female academics, including on social media.

She said: “I have been shaken by the level of threat and harassment experienced in recent years by some of our academics, especially female academics, and especially via social media.”

In her final annual oration to the university as she prepares to step down in December, she cited the “appalling” attack on Salman Rushdie in New York as showing that “when writers and academics speak out, there are people willing to cut them off”.

She said: “The ability to have such disagreements is what one might call ‘freedom’. I hope that one of the things that students learn when they come to Oxford is how to disagree well.

“I’ve always believed that the value of a university education lies as much in the doubts it creates as in the facts it imparts.”

Attacks on freedom of speech

Recent attacks on freedom of speech at Oxford have included external event organisers at a College rescinding a speaking invitation in 2020 to Prof Selina Todd, an expert in the history of working-class women, after she was accused of being a “transphobe” for her involvement in women’s rights advocacy and for her teaching of feminist history.

Prof Selina Todd - Andrew Crowley
Prof Selina Todd - Andrew Crowley

In another incident last year, Abhijit Sarkar, an Oxford post-doctoral student, said he was subjected to threats of rape and murder online after being accused of “Hinduphobia”. He had posted on Instagram about Rashmi Samant, the first female Indian student to lead the Oxford University Students' Union, who resigned over a racism row.

Prof Richardson said: “Back in January 2016 I quoted John Stuart Mill’s point that a university’s influence on its students rests on what he called ‘the pervading tone of the place’. I hope that, if it has not always done so in the past seven years, in future the tone of Oxford will always live up to the ‘elevation of sentiment’ invoked by Mill.”

The vice-chancellor criticised the “fossilised” governance of the university and questioned its record of all academic staff passing probation. “We may be omniscient in our hiring decisions, but it seems unlikely,” she said.

Funding and regulatory challenges

She also used her speech to highlight the funding challenges for universities, as fees remain frozen while costs “spiral”. Boris Johnson promised in 2020 to match £150 million of funding from donors for a new Pandemic Sciences Institute that would “retain our best scientists and serve as a magnet to scientists from around the world” so that the UK is “never again caught unprepared for a pandemic”.

However, the Government has so far failed to fulfil its side of the bargain, she said.

While highlighting the recent achievements of the university, including its role in developing a Covid vaccine and attracting billions of pounds of investment, she said challenges included the regulatory burden on universities.

The Office for Students published 600,000 words in regulatory documents in 2020-21, 30 per cent more than Tolkein took to write The Lord of the Rings trilogy, she said. “The heavy weight of regulation continues to be an unsustainable burden on university administration,” she added.

Prof Richardson is leaving to join Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic fund which supports education programmes in the US. She will be replaced by Prof Irene Tracey, a neuroscientist and warden of Merton College, Oxford.