The prime of Prof Louise Richardson, the Irish president of St Andrews University

On the same day as the Scottish referendum, a secret ballot at the Royal and Ancient golf club of St Andrews will decide on whether it will accept female members, including the president of neighbouring St Andrew’s university, Irishwoman Louise Richardson

 

Louise Richardson’s life reads like an implausible movie script. A Tramore convent girl with a righteous passion for the IRA grows into a glamorous, award-garlanded Harvard professor specialising in the field of international terrorism, before becoming the first female principal (president) of the third oldest university in the English-speaking world.

In the sub plot, she marries a successful doctor, a Boston Brahmin whose family tree reaches back to the Mayflower, develops a taste for fine clothes and White Star champagne, and much later, from her 15th century university campus – where the future king of England studied and found a bride – ends up at loggerheads with the institution next door, the 255-year-old home of golf, the historic male bastion of the Royal and Ancient golf club of St Andrews.

The club has refused to grant her the honorary membership extended to the previous two (male) incumbents and “once or twice” , she told the New York Times, “female professors have seen me in situations where I’m surrounded by men wearing their R&A ties, and they get really upset and offended for me”.

Some of the members would then wave their ties at her “to draw my attention, lest I didn’t notice”. “They think that’s funny,” she said. For a woman running an organisation of 10,000 people and for whom networking is a vital part of the job, this is about more than feminist ideology.

And did we mention we are in the heartland of John Knox, a St Andrews graduate and the title of whose 1558 book, First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, says all you need to know about his take on equal opportunities? For centuries, St Andrews had been presided over not only by a man, but a British man and a Protestant. It was Louise Richardson, not just a woman but an Irish-born woman and a Roman Catholic, who smashed the mould.

In her installation address in 2009, amid mighty pomp, she noted Knox’s association with the university: “I have heard from several sources that there was a lot of speculation in St Andrews as to what was happening in Knox’s grave at word of my appointment.” God knows what else was spinning just a par-5 away in the R&A building.

Five years on, just back from a family holiday, the professor sits elegantly in her functional, wood-panelled, corner office in the remote little town on the Scottish North Sea coast and agrees that her appointment was a brave stroke. The question is, why did she want it ?

The political scientist had been at Harvard for 20 years, earning her doctorate there, rising to executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and associate professor in the Harvard Government Department, giving prestigious courses on international relations.

She had always pursued a side interest in terrorist movements and ended up teaching a wildly popular course in it – long before 9/11 made it a cottage industry – as well as writing the post-9/11 book, What Terrorists Want, described by the New York Times as “the essential primer on terrorism and how to tackle it”.

Meanwhile, she crisscrossed the globe giving talks and lectures to policymakers, the military, intelligence, and business communities, testifying before the United States Senate and appearing on CNN, the BBC, PBS, NPR, Fox among many.

The book was a brave counterblast in its time, suggesting the world had not changed after 9/11 as George Bush insisted: what had really changed was the American reaction, or overreaction, in her view, with the Patriot Act and the declaration of a “war on terror”. To declare “war on terror” was meaningless, she argued, because terror was an emotion and terrorism a tactic. Terrorists could not be defeated like a foreign army, but could be contained. First, however, it was necessary to understand what motivated them.

Where did that mindset come from ?

“I used to read all the literature on terrorism as a hobby and always felt it was one-dimensional,” she explains. But before that?

The unlikely genesis of it all was the Walton’s radio show. Every Saturday, on the family car journeys from Tramore to visit a sibling in a Dublin hospital, the show was on Radio Éireann.

“As a result of that, there isn’t an Irish rebel song that I don’t know backwards and forwards . . . It’s extraordinary but music influenced me. I was a rabid Republican growing up as a child, which I didn’t get from my parents at all, but from the songs and probably from the nuns at the Ursulines [in Waterford, where her mother had gone before her].”

By the age of 14, she had become besotted by nationalism, leaving her parents completely bemused.

“I used to go to Ring every summer and wore the Fáinne and spoke Irish . . . I used to keep scrapbooks and read the Irish Times from cover to cover, following events in Northern Ireland, because then, in my childhood, it fitted in with all I had learned in our entirely one-sided history, which was all a matter of the poor, noble, weak Irish with the occasional betrayer in their midst and the evil English.”

Days after Derry’s Bloody Sunday, her mother, Julie, had to lock her in her room to stop her running off to Newry to join the protests.

Meanwhile, Julie – “an extraordinary woman” – had six other young Richardsons to cope with. Louise was the second eldest but the oldest girl – “what psychologists call ‘the functional first-born’”. She must have been an exotic creature in an “unambitious family” with no history of third-level education. Like many of her generation, Julie Phelan had left school early and was married at 18 to Arthur, a Dubliner who met his bride while on holidays in Tramore and later became a local sales manager for Esso.

The “wonderful, totally vibrant” couple still live in the maternal grandfather’s house in Tramore. “I once asked my father what were his ambitions for his four daughters. He thought about it for a while and said – ‘that one enter the convent and none end on the shelf’.”

She ended up in Trinity College, doing honours history, one of three Catholics in a class of 33, in a “very elite, very traditional” department, under the formidable, austere Theodore Moody. “I think that the high expectation came from myself – because I was smart and I read a lot and I had self-confidence,” she says. She immersed herself in student politics , supporting herself by shelving books for two hours, six mornings a week in the library, and working as a cocktail waitress four nights a week in the Burlington.

“It was in Trinity that I got a very different perspective on our history and started challenging what I had grown up with – and was dismissed as ‘Trinity talk’. I became fascinated by how two sets of well-meaning people occupying this small island can have diametrically-opposed interpretations of the same events.”

But the obvious lack of of enthusiasm about her academic time in Trinity suggests she found it less than inspiring. When she won an international Rotary scholarship to study in a beachside Californian university for a year – while also taking that year’s Trinity exams, demanded as a condition of completing her degree – it changed her life. From here on in, the interview almost becomes a love letter to America.

“The first time I went into class there was a man sitting on a table top in a yoga pose. He said, ‘Hello, I’m Jeremy’ and I thought ‘I don’t care who you are, there will be a professor here in a minute.’ You’ve guessed it, he was the professor”.

With her degree came a scholarship to UCLA. She ran back to America. “Right after I went back and decided I was going to make my life in America. I met the man who was to become my husband.” The man was Tom Jevon. This clearly presented its own challenges: “I think we were still dating when his mother gave me the family tree with the direct link to the Mayflower.”

Gulp.

But he seems to have been a good bet. She delivered their first child on the day she filed her doctorate dissertation and in the book preface, she thanks him for his “unfailing willingness cheerfully to pick up the pieces on the home front”.

Five years ago, she was characteristically open about the fall-out for Tom and their three children – Ciara, Fiona and Rory – in her transatlantic move to St Andrews. “I had a fabulous job and a fabulous life and I am very conscious of the disruption I am causing to my family.”

But she had itchy feet, she says now, “and I was thinking, am I really going to spend my entire life in one institution? My youngest son was about to start high school so I thought I’ve either got to move now or wait four years.”

She put the word out and back came three “wonderful offers – one in California, one in Cambridge and St Andrews . . . This one was the biggest challenge and I thought this is a wonderful institution – a hidden gem, very good in areas I care a lot about and I thought the size and scale meant I could really make an impact.”

Her mission statement was to raise £100 million, widen access and build the brand. She has raised £50 million so far, quadrupled access for disadvantaged students and is battling to move the brand beyond its “rich, elite, Tory and English” reputation.

St Andrews is third in the UK university league tables, “but not where we want to go in the international league tables”. It stands at 83rd, and she wants to see it in the top 50. But she becomes almost evangelical about the need to “resist the pressure to marketwise everything that we do”.

“We are in straitened times, we rely on public funding so it is completely understandable that the government would like us to respond to the needs of the market. But I think we have got to take a much longer-term view; that’s the whole advantage of universities – and I can say this as one [representing one] that’s been around for 600 years, one that’s older than most governments, that’s older than many forms of governments and most organisations you can think of – and I think the long-term view is that we should be investing in smart people to think about the future, to be at the cutting edge, not thinking about what would generate jobs locally. It’s fine for some institutions to do that but I think we should have that focus on the life of the mind and to celebrate that . . .”

And no, she has no plans to ditch the current crest for rebranding purposes, though it came directly from Pope Benedict XIII and features what is probably a Bible. “No”, she says, slightly startled, “there are no plans to change anything – I don’t think that’s why people choose universities”.

As for the family . . . The plan to move to Scotland didn’t quite work out. Their two daughters won places in Harvard and though 14-year-old Rory came to St Andrews with her, after a “rocky” transition, he legged it back to Boston.

Meanwhile, it would have taken Tom two years to become eligible to work in the UK. But Rory came back, became a happy, adopted Scot and is now studying history in Aberdeen.

Tom stayed in Boston but the rule is that they see each other at least every six weeks. In practice, it seems to be half that. Her home, she says, is where her husband and kids are, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

She is a highly respected part of national discourse, a member of the First Minister of Scotland’s Council of Economic Advisors and the Scottish Commemorations Panel and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh but hanging on to the university’s independence in steely fashion.

Stamping on the attempted silencing of a faculty member in the referendum debate, she said, “whether or not my personal views are in accord with yours, I assure you that any external pressure to limit or suppress debate will stop at my door”.

She pointed to an ancient inscription over a university gate that, she says, “is a useful and timeless reminder of the university’s commitment to free speech: ‘They have said and they will say. Let them be saying’.”

Meanwhile, the new millennium and some very large, embarrassed sponsors threaten to overtake the R&A when they ballot their 2,400 members (in a heroically secret, postal vote) on female membership on the same date as the Scottish referendum.

The referendum requires a simple majority; the R&A requires two-thirds. They probably think that’s funny too.

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