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Former Oxford Vice Chancellor Says University Education Can Help Combat Terrorism at HKS Event

Oxford University Louise M. Richardson discussed how institutions of higher education can do more to help combat terrorism.
Oxford University Louise M. Richardson discussed how institutions of higher education can do more to help combat terrorism. By Zadoc I.N. Gee
By William C. Mao and Dhruv T. Patel, Crimson Staff Writers

Louise M. Richardson, former vice chancellor of the Oxford University, said universities can foster more discourse and education to help combat terrorism at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum on Monday.

The talk — moderated by former HKS Dean Graham T. Allison ’62 — marked this year’s Edwin L. Godkin Lecture, an annual talk hosted at the Kennedy School since 1903.

Richardson opened the event with a speech weaving together university leadership and terrorism — “a clunky compromise” that she and Allison agreed to when planning the talk, she said.

“Professor Allison would prefer me to talk about terrorism, but I want to talk about universities,” she said. “Of course, there is a practical link between the two.”

In her speech, Richardson said universities should focus on bringing together “multitudes — diverse people, topics, ideas.”

“One of the primary values of a university education is that it should rob us of our certitude,” she said.

An expert on terrorism, Richardson contrasted the intellectual diversity students find at universities with the “binary” worldviews terrorists adopt. The “Manichean view” on the world that they embrace, she said, empowers them to commit acts of terror.

“It is this certainty that enables them to murder their opponents, to cancel them,” Richardson said.

Richardson was previously a Government professor at Harvard from 1989 to 2000, before serving as the executive dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study shortly after Radcliffe College merged with Harvard.

While pursuing a doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Richardson led a study group with the Institute of Politics, leading a group of students in researching the politics of Northern Ireland.

“We wrote to every political leader on both sides of the divide, and were completely stumped when they all agreed to come,” she said. “Such was the power of the name of the Kennedy School.”

During the event, Richardson acknowledged the conflicting and complex roles university leaders are charged with playing.

“As university leaders, we often have to mediate between worlds whose habits and priorities are imperfectly aligned,” she said. “It’s a diplomatic, as much as a managerial role.”

Allison connected Richardson’s comments to the ongoing leadership turmoil at Harvard, pointing to former Harvard President Claudine Gay’s controversial testimony before Congress just one month before she resigned from the University’s top post.

Richardson noted that universities in Britain — as a result of their public funding — are compelled to engage with the public and government “far more than has historically been the case” in the United States.

“University vice chancellors are dragged into the public domain a great deal,” she said.

During the event, Richardson recounted one specific instance of “political pressure.” She once publicly criticized a politician for his comments on universities — when he was later appointed head of the Education Select Committee of the United Kingdom’s Parliament, he called her before a hearing.

“Of course when he was appointed, he was gunning for me,” Richardson said.

Towards the end of the lecture, Richardson turned back to the discussion on terrorism, praising education as key to combating “a tactic that will be used as long as it is effective.”

“I think the mere fact that the terrorist groups are trying to prevent people being educated illustrates that they at least believe that education is likely to turn people away from them,” she said. “To me, it just reinforces the imperative of trying to make access to education globally a huge priority.”

—Staff writer William C. Mao can be reached at Follow him on X @williamcmao.

—Staff writer Dhruv T. Patel can be reached at Follow him on X @dhruvtkpatel.

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