ALISON RICHARD was once named queen of the dinosaurs. She is also known for her specialist knowledge of the social systems of primates, in particular the matriarchal white lemurs of Madagascar. Professor Richard is an anthropologist and was long intrigued as to why a minority of animals gave up their solitary lifestyles to live in more complex social systems - research that contributes to understanding our own social origins. She spent 15 years leading a research project observing the Madagascan lemurs that are famed for the fact that it is the females who dominate their society. But that work belongs to her 'other life', the one she might still be leading had she not moved into the highest echelons of leadership herself. Today, Professor Richard works in a particularly complex social system of academics, as head of an ancient collegiate university that, until now, has been male-dominated. It will, ironically, be Professor Richard who leads Britain's Cambridge University through its 800th anniversary celebrations in four years time, given that for more than 700 of those years it barred women from receiving its degrees. But Professor Richard, who was in Hong Kong last week to rally support for the university, represents the future rather than the past. When she was a student there in the 1960s, at the all-female Newnham College, women accounted for one in eight of Cambridge undergraduates. Today, they are just in the majority. When she took over from the Australian Lord Alec Broers in 2003 she was returning to her academic roots. But it is at Yale University in the US where she has been most at home, having spent three decades there, latterly as its provost, the president's right-hand woman. Yale was where she met her husband, archaeologist Robert Dewar, and where they brought up their two daughters, who both went on to become Yale students. Being a parent never slowed her career. 'I can't imagine having done it without having a husband who is a real co-partner,' she said. 'It was a fully two-parent home. He has been endlessly supportive, as have our daughters.' Her route to the top began in the mid-1980s, when she chaired Yale's anthropology department. She moved further into management as director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, one of the most important collections in the US - a role that earned her the dinosaur title. 'Why I was qualified to be chief operating officer for a US$1.5 million operation at Yale I don't know,' she said. There had been 'fantastic changes' in Cambridge since her student days, she said, not least the rise of women among students and academics, although she added they were still advancing more slowly at the more senior levels. 'I understand I am a role-model,' she said. She is quietly championing various causes related to women. Cambridge sportsmen, for instance, enjoy far superior facilities to its sportswomen and she has proposed the building of more suitable accommodation for two-career families than that provided for the bachelors of the past. But like many female leaders, Professor Richard does not want a reputation for being soft on women or of their cause being the focus of her leadership. 'This is just one piece of the much larger task of providing leadership and service to this great university,' she said. Professor Richard's larger goal is to keep Cambridge among a handful of great universities in the world, educating future leaders and its innovations sparking global changes such as those created by its scientists James Watson and Bernard Crick, who in the 1950s unravelled the mysteries of DNA. Her attention is focused on ensuring that the university has the resources to do this. Cambridge, she said, was not in crisis, but funding was an issue. It could no longer rely on 'doing more with less than its peers in the US' if it was to retain its position. 'I consider frugality to be a virtue but we have got to compete globally,' she said. It needed adequate funding to continue to attract the best minds. Academics, she said, should not have to take a vow of poverty. And although Professor Richard has supported the introduction of top-up fees, she is also ensuring a needs-based bursary system is put in place so students can be admitted regardless of their background. 'Cambridge is strong. It has an endowment of GBP2.7 billion [$39.8 billion], which is not negligible. But going forward we must over the next decade strengthen its finances and reconfigure them, and the time is now. We have a sense of urgency rather than crisis. But if we sit around we would be ignoring what the future could be.' The 800th anniversary will be the occasion for the fund-raising in a campaign to be launched later this year. Professor Richard plans to build a philanthropic tradition among its alumni and supporters akin to those underpinning the resources of the top private American universities. It was this task that brought her to Hong Kong, where she met with about 200 former students and leading benefactors, including businessman Li Ka-shing, the latter funding a new cancer research centre, and banker David Li Kwok-po, who founded the Friends of Cambridge University in Hong Kong which provides scholarships to Hong Kong students. 'Your alumni do more than contribute financially. They are your best ambassadors,' she said. Part of her work involves lobbying for adequate support for higher education, and justifying its role. 'Great economies need great universities. Great societies need great universities, now more than ever,' she said. It was no coincidence that 10 per cent of the venture capital in Europe was invested in the Cambridge area, she said. 'The university takes credit for some of that and is a magnet for the rest.' The world, she said, would be a safer place by virtue of having a global network of universities, because students today were more likely to be working and living across many cultures. Cambridge had to continue breaking down traditional boundaries. Within the academic sphere barriers between disciplines were coming down. Beyond the university new links were being formed with industry and non-government organisations. Cambridge had to reach out beyond national boundaries to make sure it was having a global impact. 'It is important that universities of the world figure out ways to partner with each other, collaborate and exchange. Cambridge must operate at a global rather than national level. 'My task is to ensure that Cambridge is bold and strategic on all these fronts.' Cambridge has two working groups that will report later this year on how to deepen its international role. It already has active partnerships, with MIT, Peking and Tsinghua universities, Harvard School of Law and Paris Deux, plus an array of less formal links. 'We are thinking hard what more strategic partnerships we want to form,' she said. An international outlook also had to be embedded in the curriculum. 'It is important our curriculum increasingly looks out at what is going on in the world today,' she said. For instance, traditional studies of history were now matched by modern Chinese studies. It also plans to set up a China manufacturing programme, which will sit between the schools of business and engineering and collaborate with institutions in China. One of the working groups is looking at how to best cater for overseas students, who now account for 13 per cent of undergraduates and 51 per cent of postgraduates. 'The notion that overseas students are a commodity is unfortunate. It is not the way we think about it,' she said. The university already gave particular support in languages, teaching 150 languages, including English for academic purposes for those coming from overseas. The college system also provided support, and was what made Cambridge different from other major universities. The 31 colleges, which are responsible for the pastoral care and academic supervision of students, provided 'human-scale communities' within the huge research enterprise of the wider university, she said. Professor Richard is Cambridge's third full-time vice-chancellor and will serve a term of seven years. Previously, its most senior academics served part-time for two years and had no operational duties. She follows Lord Broers, who oversaw the huge physical expansion of the Cambridge footprint, by 20 per cent. Research funding, meanwhile, has increased by 9 per cent a year over the past decade. 'Lord Broers did an amazing job. He positioned the university in relation to industry and made it more outward looking.' He also embarked on administrative changes which has created a team of five pro vice-chancellors to provide a strategic leadership team. 'I can turn more attention to supporting people in the university: financial aid for students, better support for academic staff,' she said. Professor Richard is returning to Madagascar for two weeks in August, even though she has long passed her research over to her former students and local colleagues. Alongside her research, she was involved in conservation activities with the local community. 'This is a remote part of Madagascar where people carry spears, wear loin cloths and education is very limited,' she said. 'But in its politics it ain't much different from Yale and Cambridge.' In her first 18 months as vice-chancellor, her life has revolved around the social aspects of her role. 'I have been totally immersed in learning Cambridge,' she said. 'After 30 years at Yale I knew everyone. At Cambridge I knew nobody: not just the staff but alumni, government and business community.' She is now building connections with all these groups. 'There are so many people you have to work with as a vice-chancellor,' she said. She belongs, after all, to a species that thrives on its social complexity.