Getting to Know Dame Louise Richardson with Judy Woodruff … – Carnegie Corporation of New York

The Corporation’s new president talks with long-serving Corporation trustee Judy Woodruff about growing up in rural Ireland, the dangers of binary thinking, and much more, including being the first in her family to go to college
Louise Richardson spoke on the philanthropic pursuit of real and permanent good at the Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy ceremony in October 2022. (Credit: Filip Wolak)
Judy Woodruff: It is my great pleasure to be spending some time with Dame Louise Richardson, who is about to become the 13th president of Carnegie Corporation of New York. Louise, it’s wonderful to be talking with you. 

Dame Louise Richardson: Its a pleasure.  

Woodruff: You are a political scientist. You have specialized in the study of terrorism, but you’ve studied much more broadly than that. Youre returning to live in America after 14 years, seven years as vice-chancellor of St. Andrews in Scotland, and most recently as vice-chancellor at the University of Oxford. This is a big question: What does the world look like to you?  

Richardson: Well, it is a big question. I think the answer is very different than it would have been a few years ago. The world is a frightening place at the moment, what with the aftereffects of the pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the daily accumulating evidence of the ravages of climate change, and the fragility of democracy being exposed. And yet, Im a perennial optimist. 

Woodruff: So, you are taking over this great institution, one of the great philanthropic institutions in the world, Carnegie Corporation of New York, at a time when we are still in the pandemic. Youve had experience at the University of Oxford with the development of a vaccine. What is your perspective at this point on the COVID pandemic? 

Richardson: Well, I think there are many lessons from the pandemic. The first is that we cannot afford to ignore risks that we know are facing us, things like antimicrobial resistance, things like climate change. The pandemic, for all of its difficulties and tragedies that occurred as a consequence, really showed just what science can do. The fact that we went from nothing to several effective vaccines in a year is pretty spectacular, a real testament to the power of the human spirit, the human intellect, and to global collaboration among scientists. We showed what we can do, but we should have been better prepared than we were. 

Woodruff: There is the science and certainly the public health aspect of this pandemic, but there is also the human aspect of it. You are moving to New York City, moving back to the United States. How do you think we have all taken on board what has happened?

Richardson: I think we have been really shaken by the pandemic. So much of our strength as a community comes from relationships with one another. And yet, unfortunately, during the pandemic, we were forced to separate, to be suspicious of relationships, of physical proximity, and that was damaging. Then on the educational front, I think we have gone back years in terms of the work that had been done to reduce inequalities in education. For so many students, school is such a wonderful opportunity, but the pandemic exposed the deep inequalities in our society in a way that was really quite tragic. I think now our work is really cut out for us to try to redress the loss of years of education especially among the most disadvantaged.

Woodruff: I have been reminded a number of times recently, how todays college students, many of them, were born after 9/11. And I think you have said that your worldview is different from that of your three children. What did you mean by that?

Richardson: Well, by that, I mean, I grew up in rural Ireland. Popular Irish history is a long story of oppression by Britain, in which the good guys usually lose the battles. Whereas my children grew up in America, where they believed in progress and the virtue of the U.S., and the good guys win the wars. That was a very different perspective. I think American children today might have a different perspective than my children have, because of the impact of 9/11, because of the impact of the economic crisis in 2008, and because of Black Lives Matter.

Woodruff: Lets go back to earlier and talk a little bit about what it was like in County Waterford, Ireland. You were one of seven — three brothers, three sisters — raised in the same house as your mother, your grandmother, and your great-grandfather. You were the first in your family to go to college. Tell us what Louise was like, as a little girl and what life was like. 

Richardson: Well, I had an older brother, and he seemed to get all the advantages. That always annoyed me. So, I was a tomboy early on. But it was an idyllic childhood really, growing up in a small seaside town where we just ran free all day, and you knew or were related to pretty much everyone. There was just one local convent school for girls, and one that the brothers ran for boys, and you walked to school, you walked home for lunch and back to school afterwards.

I believe birth order is very important in ones development and being second of seven has had a huge impact on me. If you are one of seven kids, you know you are not the center of the universe. Everything has to be negotiated with your siblings, with whom you are sharing a bed, sharing a bedroom.  

The expectations for women or girls were utterly different than for boys. The expectations of my brothers were so different from my own. I once asked my father, “What are your ambitions for your four daughters?” and he stopped. He hadnt thought about it. And he finally said, “Well, that at least one enters the convent and that none end up on the shelf,” by which he meant unmarried. My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. I dont mean that as a criticism. It was just the view of the people of his generation. There was absolutely no expectation that I would do anything other than get married. But I read a lot, and much as I loved the place, I wanted to leave. I did leave shortly after my 17th birthday. I went to university in Dublin.

Woodruff: So you flew the coop so to speak, and we see what happened. In your book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, published about 15 years ago, you write that you came from a background that has produced many terrorists, and you have spent your career trying to understand them. Talk about that.

Richardson: I grew up close to a Gaeltacht, a region where Irish is spoken and is the medium of instruction in schools. I was a passionate Irish speaker, for a time speaking it in preference to speaking English. The version of Irish history that we learned at school was such a one-sided version. It was really sympathetic to Irish Republicanism. When I got to Trinity College, which was a Protestant institution and most of the professors at the time were British, not Irish, I learned an entirely different version of Irish history. I became fascinated by how two sets of people — well-meaning, decent, good people — could have diametrically opposed interpretations of the same historical events in this tiny little island.

When I came to America and studied terrorism, I felt the literature was pretty terrible, because it just saw terrorists as one-dimensional bad guys and psychopaths, and I thought it was much more complicated than that. I wanted to understand how do these people who were warm, kind, good parents, good teachers, upstanding members of the community, decide to join a terrorist group to commit atrocities that violate every ethical code?

I believed that, especially if we want to counter terrorists effectively, we have to understand what motivates them. I was subject to some criticism for this because people confused my effort to understand the enemy with support for them. But not at all. One has to understand them in order to counter them effectively.

I am so looking forward to it. I expect I am going to discover all sorts of extraordinary people out there doing amazing work. My task will be: How do we help them do more of it?
Woodruff: When you first came to America, philanthropy played such a big role.

Richardson: Oh absolutely. I would not have the education I have had without the support of generous philanthropists. I first came to America on a scholarship from the Rotary Foundation. I was completely taken with the meritocratic ethos, the can-do attitude, the fact that you could be smart and it was cool — which it really wasnt, certainly as a girl, where I came from — and I really loved that.

So, I went back to Trinity and resolved that I was going to come back to America for graduate school. I got another scholarship to come back to America first for a masters degree, and then I got another scholarship to Harvard to get a PhD. There was simply no question I could have afforded any of that.

Undergraduate education was relatively inexpensive, so I worked two jobs and paid my own way. I worked shelving books in the library every morning, six mornings a week, early in the morning before the library opened in Trinity College. And then I worked as a cocktail waitress four nights a week in the Burlington Hotel in Dublin. I was also able to work during the holidays, so I could afford to finance my own undergraduate education.

But when it came to graduate school, it was fully financed by generous philanthropists. I always had lots of extra jobs just because if you dont come from means you never have confidence that there will be money there if you need it. At UCLA, I got free room and board from a couple whose house I cleaned until I realized how much money you could make as a research assistant and as a teaching assistant.

Woodruff: But now youve got all these skills under your belt —

Richardson: Absolutely. I am the best waitress.

Woodruff: You have been the first woman vice-chancellor at St. Andrews University and of the University of Oxford. You are now the first woman to lead Carnegie Corporation of New York. You have said that you hope for the day when we won’t even make a big deal out of the fact. Do you think such a time is actually going to come?

Richardson: Oh, I think it is, definitely. It has taken a lot longer than I would have liked or any of us would have expected. If you think of my mothers generation, what I have achieved would have been inconceivable in her generation. I really look forward to the day when the fact that a leader is a woman is not an issue. One of my personal goals is always to be succeeded by a woman. And I think as that happens more and more, we will seed more and more women to the top levels of universities and public broadcasting and industries and indeed governments. It is taking far longer than it should have, but I think we will get there.
Read Louise Richardson's biography and explore her writings, speeches, articles, interviews, books, and more
Woodruff: You have been in education your entire professional life. What makes philanthropy interesting to you? 

Richardson: Well because the needs are so great. You have very real problems in this city, in this country, and indeed globally. Governments have vast resources, but they are also partisan. Philanthropists have the flexibility to see a problem and step in and do something about it quickly without any partisanship.  

Woodruff: How do you think running a foundation like the Corporation will be different from running an educational institution?  

Richardson: There will be a difference of scale. I have been leading a very singular institution where I am responsible for about 50,000 people. I love the idea that I will know everybody who works here. I am a strong believer in the power of community, of people working together. If you have 100 people working together, it is much easier to figure out who you want to collaborate with beyond the group. Some of the problems we are talking about are much bigger than any one foundation can effectively address, but one could imagine persuading other foundations to target the same problem and working on it together. 

Woodruff: I want to ask you about civil discourse, how we treat one another in our communities and across political divides. Right now, we are in a very divided time in the United States. How do you as a political scientist look at this?  

Richardson: It is horrifying to see the polarization in this country that I love. We are seeing it to a lesser extent in other countries, but the U.S. seems to be in the forefront. I think it is deeply troubling, and I very much hope that foundations will get together to try to reclaim the center, because the center ground is where we make progress.  

Woodruff: I remember a line in your address at the Oxford Union, that you haven’t gotten a good education unless you’ve been disabused of everything you’ve ever thought, or at least begin to question it. 

Richardson: Yes, I’ve long argued that education is as much about robbing students of their certitudes as about the facts that it imparts. The Augustinian precept audi alteram partem — listen to the other side — should be our motto. You have to listen to the other point of view. And if you disagree with it, try to change their mind. But above all, you have got to be open to having your own mind changed too. 

That is the real task for a foundation today: to make sure that we are just being as disciplined, as targeted, as focused, and as flexible as we can be. We have to be realistic in what we can achieve, but we have lots of opportunity to make a difference.
Woodruff: You have called social media “the pillory of modern times” and you talk about binary choices. What do you mean by that? 

Richardson: Well, I mean seeing the world in black and white. This goes back to my study of terrorism because the one characteristic that terrorists invariably share is seeing the world in Manichean terms, black and white, good and evil. I think we should get out of this binary thinking. The world is complicated.  

Our kids spend their time on computers where they like or dislike, thumbs up, thumbs down, which really encourages binary thinking. The punishment of the pillory was when somebody did or said something objectionable, they were held up for public opprobrium and ridiculed. That is what is happening now on social media. I am a passionate defender of free speech, but this kind of toxic, abusive trolling, which often leads to self-censorship and occasionally to self-harm, we dont have a handle on it, and I think we need to.  

Woodruff: I was really struck by this metaphor. There is nothing in the middle. 

Richardson: There is that wonderful line from Yeats, “The center cannot hold. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” That is where we are getting to.  

Woodruff: You have also described truth as an aspiration, rather than a possession.  

Richardson: I am stunned by this concept of my truth and the notion that there is one infallible perspective, and it is the only right one, and it is mine. I think we should be striving to ascertain the truth rather than claiming to own it. 

Woodruff: One of your many accomplishments at Oxford was creating greater access to higher education among people who are disadvantaged. It was one of the things that the late Queen Elizabeth cited when she appointed you Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.  

Richardson: There remains a lot of social inequality in Britain, including in Britain higher education, but I think we have made real strides, and I am enormously proud of that. We have gone from 10 percent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds to 23 percent in seven years so it shows what you can accomplish when you marshal people behind a goal. I can rattle off all the statistics, but the statistics dont capture the gift of a transformed life. How do you quantify that?  

Woodruff: They are just so impressive, the changes that have taken place. It is also an enormous problem. How can private philanthropy make a dent in it?  

Richardson: The problem is actually bigger than private philanthropies can address alone. The problem is that so many young people are falling off the educational ladder long before it is time to make a competitive application to university. We need to invest in education right from the very beginning and keep that investment going. There is nothing more important. 

Woodruff: Andrew Carnegie was among the ultrarich who acknowledged that economic inequality was a problem in his time. It eventually prompted him to give away his fortune. But people are still skeptical about philanthropy. What do you say to those who wonder what foundations and organizations like the Corporation do?  

Richardson: Well, I think they should judge us by our work. We should be able to point to what we have done with the legacy and the improvements we have made. If we can’t, we are doing something wrong. I do think we have a real responsibility to be serious about what we do and ensure that we are being effective.  

Woodruff: You have had time to examine Andrew Carnegies legacy as a member of the board and now the president. What do you think his legacy is? What did he accomplish? 

Richardson: I think his book The Gospel of Wealth is just so important. Carnegie thought about his wealth, and what his responsibilities were — that wealth is not to feed your ego, it is to feed the poor, to feed the hungry, and to help those who need help. That message is just as important today. I do think there is gravely inequitable distribution of wealth. One could reasonably argue that nobody should have that much wealth, but the reality is, many people do, so lets encourage them to spend it improving the lot of others, as Andrew Carnegie did.  

Woodruff: So, what do you think an organization like Carnegie Corporation, which has a lot of resources but limited, can do on its own and in combination with other philanthropic organizations to make a difference in the world?  

Richardson: Well, I think that is the task. I hope to spend my first few months consulting with our board and with the staff and just questioning everything we do, asking: “Are we targeting this correctly? Should we be more disciplined? Should we shift our areas of focus? Who else is working in these areas?” What we want to do is find areas — a niche — that need help where people are not pouring in money. That is the real task for a foundation today: to make sure that were just being as disciplined, as targeted, as focused, and as flexible as we can be. We have to be realistic in what we can achieve, but we have lots of opportunity to make a difference. 

Woodruff: What is inside Louise Richardson as she looks at this next challenge?

Richardson: I am so looking forward to it. I expect I am going to discover all sorts of extraordinary people out there doing amazing work. My task will be: How do we help them do more of it? 

Woodruff: Louise Richardson, congratulations again as you begin your tenure as the 13th president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

Richardson: Thank you so much, Judy.  
This article is a transcript of a video conversation and has been edited for length and clarity.

Dame Louise Richardson, a trustee of Carnegie Corporation of New York since 2013, joined the Corporation as its 13th president in January 2023. She served most recently as vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford from 2016 to 2022. Judy Woodruff, a senior correspondent and former anchor and managing editor of PBS NewsHour, received the Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement in Television News in 2022. She served on the Corporations board of trustees from 1995 to 2003 and from 2013 to 2022.
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