Chancellor's welcome address

12 January 2016

Professor Richardson –

On behalf of the whole Oxford community – a partnership of students, teachers, researchers, supporting staff, old members and benefactors – I welcome you as the 272nd Vice-Chancellor (or thereabouts) since 1230 when the scoreboard at Oxford began to register these things. You have, Professor, an outstanding record as a teacher and scholar, and have been until recently the head of another eminent university, and we are delighted that the Chancellor and Governor. I know that you would wish to be judged primarily not on the glass ceilings you have smashed, but on your achievements as an academic leader on both sides of the Atlantic. They provide the principal argument for our choice of you as our next leader, as this world-class university confronts the trials and the opportunities of the 21st century. We hope that you enjoy your years with us, and that your family enjoy them too.

As you know, Professor, Oxford is a great university, with a global reputation for its teaching and its scholarship. We teach young men and women of the highest ability from every continent. Our researchers push back the frontiers of knowledge in ways that can be measured in terms of well-being and prosperity, and in other ways which can hardly be measured at all. As Einstein famously said, 'Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.' We have enjoyed a great past, contributing much to the history and legacy of this country, and of countries and continents far beyond. We believe we are living up to that record today. So it is appropriate when welcoming newcomers here to recall the old Chinese adage that it is better to join a short queue than a long one.

However, we know that it would be a disservice to past and present to go to sleep on our laurels. We face challenges that under your leadership we will need to surmount.

First, an institution remains excellent only by constantly recognising that it must do even better. In some academic areas, we are clearly and correctly thought to be as good as any university in the world, maybe better than any other university in the world. In some areas, the world outside doesn't know how good we have become. In some areas, our reputation (if we are honest with ourselves) perhaps exceeds what we are actually achieving. We reckon, and we are probably right, that the way we teach is the best anywhere and justifies the large subsidy we make as individual colleges and as an independent university to sustain it. Welcome or not, that judgement will come under more fierce scrutiny in the future.

Second, on two points I am sceptical. I do not believe that public expenditure alone determines the quality of a country's higher education. If that were true, Britain would not still have the second best system of university education in the world. But you cannot easily deny that public investment in universities has some impact on their quality and on their contribution to our future decency, influence and prosperity as a country.

I am also sceptical about the idea that when other countries spend so much more on universities and research than we do, the competition they offer us is impossible to match. There are other things apart from money that matter to great universities and to ground-breaking research, not least autonomy, academic freedom and free enquiry.

Resources for this great university are likely to remain tight, despite our fine record in winning research grants and profiting from commercial spin-offs from our scholarship. So we shall need to continue the fund-raising efforts by the university and colleges which have been so successful under your predecessors, Professor Richardson, for whose work in this field and in so many others we are enormously grateful. Fundraising is particularly important if we are to continue to ensure needs-blind access to this university; the support we give to less well-off students is not equalled by any other university in Britain. I hope that we can continue to raise the level of alumni participation in fund-raising. Our benefactors including old members have been ever more generous. At present, almost 20% of our alumni give money to the University or their old colleges.

I mentioned autonomy and freedom. These are areas where risks crowd in on us. You, Professor Richardson, will not have to be reminded of the wisdom of Edmund Burke, born like you in Ireland, who spoke out for peace with the American colonies which were to come together to create what has been your home. I wonder how many of our political establishment today have read or understand Burke, for whom great and independent institutions were important pillars of a society which is shaped by and respects liberty and order, and which comprehends the relationship between freedom and justice.

Naturally, the state has the right to set out a framework of purposes and standards within which it expects universities to operate. But universities should be left with the freedom to determine how they meet these standards with, as Wilhelm von Humboldt argued almost two centuries ago, a unity of research and pedagogy, the freedom to teach how you want and what you wish to teach, and academic self-governance. A university is not an agency of government, subject to rule by bureaucratic matrices.

We know we have a role to play in enhancing social inclusion in Britain. We know that we have to be even more resourceful and generous in promoting diversity in social background, in gender, in race and ethnicity. But we should not be harried into ill-considered actions that threaten the quality of what and how we teach; actions moreover which may cast doubt on the ability of some who study here to gain a place at this university on their own merits. I fear that some conceivably well-intentioned efforts to make progress in these areas may have the effect of deterring applications from exactly the sort of young men and women whom we want to welcome to our university in larger numbers.

I also detect a few signs of threats to the autonomy of research. I trust that we can avoid Whitehall committees deciding what research universities should be allowed to pursue. That would be a disastrous consequence of taking a wholly utilitarian approach to the role of the academy, as Britain sometimes seems in danger of doing.

Finally, we should be aware of the threat to academic freedom from within the university community itself, in this country and elsewhere. It is deeply depressing, though not perhaps surprising, that the way this issue has played out recently in Oxford has commanded far more media attention than all the wonderful academic stories that have taken place in this university over the past year. Let us go back to the fundamentals. Universities are institutions where freedom of argument and debate should be unchallenged principles. Education is not indoctrination. Our history is not a blank page on which we can write our own version of what it should have been according to our contemporary views and prejudices. We work, we study, we sleep in great buildings, many of which were constructed with the proceeds of activities that would be rightly condemned today. Moreover, many who are studying here or are doing research here are assisted with financial support from similar sources.

Because we value tolerance, we have to listen to people who shout – at a university, mark you – about speech crimes and 'no platforming'. We have to listen to those who presume that they can re-write history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct. We do have to listen, yes – but speaking for myself, I believe it would be intellectually pusillanimous to listen for too long without saying what we think, reaffirming the values that are at the heart of Karl Popper's 'Open Society' and the generosity of spirit that animated the life of Nelson Mandela. One thing we should never tolerate is intolerance. We do not want to turn our university into a drab, bland, suburb of the soul where the diet is intellectual porridge.

In an age when liberal order is increasingly threatened, universities are among the most important institutions that can hold back a Hobbesian tide. In Oxford, we will have our own part to play in that struggle. To fail without putting up a fight would be an awful treason to the beliefs and principles that have shaped our history and our present and have made us at our best a shining example of what a university should be and what a university should stand for.

Professor Richardson, you will lead here an autonomous university made up of autonomous colleges. You know that this venture is intellectually rewarding; you also know that it is far from easy. The university does need to be efficiently managed while at the same time its culture of freedom and creativity is recognised and enhanced alongside something which one of your predecessors, Sir Colin Lucas, used to mention: Serendipity. There are surely two tasks which will predominate. First, ensuring that the critical study and debate of what it means to be human, the discussion of human values, remains at the heart of what we do as a university. Second, challenging ourselves to find ways in which we can encourage our students to understand that the point of a university is not to prepare them to be financially successful, though their education may well do that, but to find out for themselves a bigger purpose for their lives. Perhaps we forget too often that there is a moral core to what we do.

Professor Richardson, once again, we welcome you as the leader of this ancient university. We look forward to working with you over many years to come.