Inside the principal’s office

Professor Struther Arnott, a former principal of St Andrews. Photo: The University of St Andrews

From 1413 until 1747, the University of St Andrews was comprised of three colleges – St Salvator’s, St Leonard’s and St Mary’s – each with its own head. In 1747, the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard was created, which reduced the number of college heads to two. The role of the principal was later established by the Act of 1858, which outlined a new governance structure for Scotland’s ancient universities (St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh).

Since then, only 10 people have held this office at the University. Technically, the title of principal comprises two functions. One is executive; the principal is also the CEO of the University. The other is ceremonial, which is why the Principal is also known as the Vice Chancellor.

Since Principal Richardson announced that she would be leaving St Andrews at the end of this semester to become the Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, the University Court has been busy searching for her successor. Before our new Principal is announced, let’s look back at some of the University’s past leaders:

Professor Struther Arnott, 1986-1999

Professor Struther Arnott, a former principal of St Andrews. Photo: The University of St Andrews
Professor Struther Arnott, a former principal of St Andrews.
Photo: The University of St Andrews

Straight from a 15-year stint at Purdue University in Indiana, Professor Arnott had his work cut out for him. At the time, the University was known as the place for Oxbridge rejects; the joke was that the curriculum had not chanced since the University was founded in the early 15th century. However, he successfully modernized the University by focusing on growing and internationalizing the student body, which hugely improved St Andrews’ reputation. His own background was in molecular biology and chemistry, and he championed the sciences by encouraging research and green-lighting new science buildings on campus. He was not without critics, though. When he proposed that the ancient universities be merged into a University of Scotland, housed at a flagship St Andrews campus, he also denounced his peer institutions, insinuating that they were not up to the task. Nonetheless, Professor Arnott was an important figure in the history of the University. Upon his death in 2013, Principal Richardson said in a message to staff that he was a principal who “believed that St Andrews could and should be the equal of the best in the world.”

Dr Brian Lang, 2001-2008

Dr Brian Lang was Principal Richardson's predecessor. Photo: The University of St Andrews
Dr Brian Lang was Principal Richardson’s predecessor.
Photo: The University of St Andrews

A Scottish social anthropologist, Dr Lang served as the chief executive of the British Library before coming to St Andrews. He got off to a rocky start when an administrative staff member accused him of sexual harassment during his first year in office. (The University settled the claim out of court.) However, thanks to his focus on leadership development, the University became one of the top five in the UK during his tenure. He also oversaw the development of more powerful schools within the University, including International Relations and Environmental Sustainability.

Dr Louise Richardson, 2009-present 

The first woman and Roman Catholic (since the Reformation) to hold the office of Principal in St Andrews, Dr Richardson is an Irish-American political scientist and terrorism specialist. She has perviously served as a dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in Massachusetts. She is also the author of the 2006 book What Terrorists Want. In her seven years as Principal, she has overseen the University’s rising rank in national and international league tables, the widening of access to students from nontraditional backgrounds, increased recruitment of American students and the raising of millions of pounds through fundraising for campus and academic development. She is known for as a political leader for denouncing the R&A’s exclusion of women (since rectified) and speaking out against Scottish independence during the referendum last year.


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