Will These Cowboy Boots March West?

Lemur lover stands out on Harvard’s presidential wish list

This is the second article in a continuing series.
Part 1: Provost Considered for Top Post

She wears purple cowboy boots. She saves forests in Africa. She just may be Harvard’s next president.

Meet Alison F. Richard—a British anthropologist who has risen to top posts in higher education on both sides of the Atlantic. She spent 30 years at Yale, including nearly nine as provost. And since 2003, she has served as head of John Harvard’s alma mater, the University of Cambridge

As the field of candidates for Harvard’s next president whittles down to a final few, the names of better known university presidents and provosts as well as a law school dean may be on the lips of many observers. But few candidates surpass Richard in either academic leadership experience or charisma, current and past colleagues say.

And Harvard’s presidential search committee has noticed, placing Richard on a list of 30 potential candidates for the position.

But does Richard want the job?

She is under contract to serve as vice-chancellor of Cambridge through 2010. (The chancellorship is a ceremonial post held by Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Philip.) One former colleague suggests that before returning to England in 2003, Richard, who is 58, insisted that her term at Cambridge last seven years, rather than the expected five.

Last month, her office released a statement saying that Richard “remains deeply committed to Cambridge and does not consider herself a candidate for the Presidency of Harvard.”

But even if Richard does not consider herself a candidate, friends and colleagues throughout academia have begun to consider the possibility seriously.

“I think she would be terrific,” says Yale anthropologist John F. Szwed who has known Richard for 25 years. “I think she would be something in the best tradition and a breath of fresh air.”


When Richard arrived in Cambridge in the summer of 2003, she did what any proper Oxbridge don would do: she bought a bicycle. Shortly after being inaugurated as the 344th vice-chancellor of Cambridge—the first woman to hold the position full-time in Cambridge’s nearly 800-year history—Richard rode that bicycle into a cow. The pink pages of London’s Financial Times picked up the story.

“You can’t even collide with a cow without people noticing,” she later told a friend of two and a half decades, Yale anthropology professor Richard L. Burger.

The vice-chancellor—who declined though her office to comment for this article—has since remained a presence in the English press. However, reports now tend to focus on her adroit steerage of an unwieldy university rather than her poor handling of a bicycle.

As Cambridge’s chief academic and administrative officer, Richard has introduced a one-billion pound ($1.9 billion) capital campaign in anticipation of the university’s 800th anniversary in 2009. The sum is a vast one for a university in England, where leading institutions are far poorer than their American peers. While Harvard has $29.2 billion in its coffers, Cambridge has just $8 billion, two-thirds of which are controlled by the university’s 31 individual colleges.

The promise of this capital campaign has impressed Cambridge professors.

“Alison Richard is perceived as very energetic and can-do, accessible and supportive, and heading up our 800th Anniversary campaign with a lot of brio,” says Cambridge professor Mary Jacobus, who directs the school’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities.

Richard has also gained praise for her efforts to globalize Cambridge’s image. She has traveled throughout the world raising money and, in the process, raising the school’s profile. She has encouraged students to study abroad and backed a joint research effort with MIT.

On the home front, as Cambridge students confront a hike in tuition fees brought about by Labor government policies, Richard has worked to increase financial aid and make Cambridge more accessible to lower income families.

While Richard’s internationalization and financial aid efforts might resemble initiatives championed by former President Lawrence H. Summers, her leadership style—according to many who know her well—does not.

Richard’s recent remarks in The Guardian of London seem almost scripted for the Harvard community after the Summers-faculty flap.

“My experience, not just at Cambridge, but at Yale, is that telling people what to do isn’t a terribly effective strategy. We’re all in this together—that’s the banner under which I march,” Richard said in October.

“Universities aren’t terribly good at getting their act together internally—not just Cambridge—there’s a happy anarchy that is characteristic of the great universities in the world,” she added at the time.


Her return to Cambridge, after living in Connecticut for 30 years, is somewhat of a homecoming. Richard, born in Kent in southeastern England, studied anthropology as an undergraduate at Cambridge’s Newham College during the late ’60s. It was there that she participated in her most memorable form of protest, when in 1967 she jumped on Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s car to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, as she recounted to The Daily Telegraph in 2003.

Among her teachers at Cambridge was Harvard anthropologist David R. Pilbeam. Pilbeam, the Ford professor of human evolution, told The Crimson in November that Richard is “very much the sort of person that would do well as a university president here.”

After Cambridge, Richard earned her doctorate in anthropology at the University of London. She has focused her studies on the Madagascar lemur, and in recent years, her attention has turned to protecting the forests inhabited by the lemur.

In 1972, Richard joined the Yale’s Department of Anthropology. According to William W. Kelly, a former chair of anthropology at Yale, Richard was one of the very first women to rise from untenured to tenured within the department.

Yale anthropologist Szwed says that Richard was “fearless” as an assistant professor.

“I remember a case when she came up against a full professor and was clearly in the right—that kind of thing is usually dealt with dodging and weaving—and she came out and dealt with it,” Szwed says.

It was at Yale that Richard met her husband, Robert Dewar, an American archaeologist who earned his doctorate at Yale and taught at the University of Connecticut before coming with Richard to Cambridge, where he is now a research fellow.


In 1986, Richard became chair of the department and later director of the Peabody Museum of Natural History. In 1994, she was chosen to be the provost of Yale, a post that brings with it a higher profile than its counterpart at Harvard.

“The provost is the internal president,” says Kelly. “The provost is the inside face. So she was the one, day to day, who really had to define the university to its constituents.”

Today, former colleagues at Yale praise Richard for her stewardship.

“She is a gifted administrator and one of the great leaders of higher education of this generation,” says Linda K. Lorimer, who has served as Yale’s secretary—one of its seven principal officers—since 1993. “Her years of service as Yale’s provost were filled with remarkable academic advancement.”

Yale professor Burger notes that “the provost traditionally at Yale is a position rarely held for no more than three, three-and-a-half years, because you have to continually turn people down, so gradually your capital is spent.”

But after her term of almost nine years, “there was no feeling that she had overstayed her time,” Burger says.

As provost, Richard had to confront a number of opposing constituencies, from graduate students seeking to unionize to activist Larry Kramer, who wanted to fund gay and lesbian studies. A gay and lesbian initiative was eventually created, but only after lengthy negotiations between Kramer and Richard.

Richard maneuvered through another political minefield when President George W. Bush’s daughter Barbara was accepted to Yale.

“There were obvious security concerns,” says Kelly.

Richard’s daughter Charlotte was admitted to the same class, so Richard asked her daughter to live with Bush to help her with the transition.

“As a provost and a mother,” Kelly says, “she navigated that first year for both of them.”

Richard’s other daughter, Elizabeth N. Dewar, provides Richard’s strongest tie to Harvard. Dewar graduated from Harvard in 2002. She lived in Adams House, played junior varsity field hockey, and wrote for The Advocate.

Richard was also appointed to serve on the ad hoc committee that advised Radcliffe Dean Drew G. Faust and former President Neil L. Rudenstine on the formation of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study—a committee  which, according to Faust, provided “a compass to steer by” for the institute.

Unable to attend meetings, Richard did not serve on the committee in the end.

While provost, Richard insisted on continuing her research. She set aside a month every year to travel to Madagascar, often accompanied by her husband, whose research shifted so they could work in the same region. When the Peabody Museum at Yale was rebuilt, Richard had an office and lab installed for her use. She was a frequent attendee at what was known as the “brown beer”—a weekly gathering of biological anthropologists.

“She would drink beer and talk about biological anthropology,” Kelly says, “She really tried to carve out a piece of time each week where she could try to be a professor.”


While she has ascended to leadership positions at two of the world’s premier institutions, colleagues say that Richard has maintained her own distinct style—“a real sense of the absurd,” says Szwed.

Szwed adds that Richard had to pay a visit to Prime Minister Tony Blair upon accepting the vice-chancellorship and arrived dressed too informally for the tastes of 10 Downing Street.

“She was to have her picture taken with Blair and people asked, ‘Is that what you’re wearing?’ They gave her a scarf or something for a headshot,” Szwed says.

According to Kelly, Richard “has a good fashion sense. It is a very personal fashion sense,” marked by her fondness for cowboy boots. When Edward P. Bass, the Yale Corporation member and benefactor from Texas, saw Richard’s boots, Kelly says, he insisted that she be outfitted by “the boot maker to the Texas elite.”

“If you’re going wear cowboy boots, you’re going to have to wear the best,” Bass said to Richard.

Burger, the Yale anthropology professor who has led excavations in Peru for more than 20 years, once found himself knocking down the walls of Richard’s home.

“She had this ancient house by the river in East Haddam, and one time I went over to her house. I didn’t know her well at the time. There was a hole in the wall, so she thought there was some sort of feature hidden beneath the walls,” Burger says. “So she handed me this gigantic mallet, a sledge hammer, so I knocked down the wall. Sure enough there was feature behind there.”

“She is very funny. A wonderful of humor. Unlimited energy. Interested in everything. Very down to earth. Extremely unpretentious. Very straight forward,” Burger says.

“She is not the kind of person who I associate with Harvard.”

No matter one Yale professor’s view of Harvard as a humorless place, people throughout academia are wondering whether Harvard is the next place for Richard.

It seems she was persuaded to assume the vice-chancellorship when she expected to settle down. Might she be persuaded again?

“It was not my plan to come to Cambridge at all,” Richard told The Financial Times in 2004. “My plan after Yale was to resume my life as an anthropologist, but I became persuaded that this was a wonderful opportunity and challenge, and this last year has confirmed that sense. I have no regrets in doing this.”

—Staff writer Samuel P. Jacobs can be reached at