Talking leadership 47: Stephen Toope on culture wars and collaboration

The outgoing vice-chancellor reflects on his five years at Cambridge and the future of higher education 

October 25, 2022
Source: The Times/News Licensing

Governments should stop picking on elements of higher education because it’s politically salient to do so and recognise institutions such as Cambridge for the “soft power” asset they are, says Stephen Toope.

The outgoing vice-chancellor of the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world sat down with Times Higher Education to reflect on what has changed in the sector since he took up his post five years ago. In a wide-ranging interview he reveals how it felt being pilloried in the press, his views on collaborating with China, and the dangers of limiting international collaboration.

Political exploitation of the “culture wars” is one of the more disturbing trends to emerge during his time at Cambridge, Toope says. He finds the “pervasive” discussions “frustrating” and believes they obstruct the real conversations that should be taking place in the halls of Westminster and elsewhere.

“There’s a fundamental balance to be struck in any community between freedom and autonomy on the one hand, and equality and social cohesion on the other. That’s a debate we should be having.”

Toope himself has arguably been dragged into more culture war battles than any other UK v-c.

From a clash over his introduction of software to allow students to anonymously accuse faculty members of “racism, discrimination and microaggressions”, which was swiftly dropped, to attacks over the rescinding of a research fellowship to controversial academic Jordan Peterson, and a proposal to introduce guidelines requiring opinions to be “respectful” of others that caused outrage and which was ultimately changed to “tolerant”.

Toope may have been scarred by the culture wars, but he doesn’t appear battle-weary; he is sanguine about the attacks. “I think one has to, first off, have a certain degree of, as the French say, sangfroid about these things,” he says. “[Oxford and Cambridge] are always on the front lines, whether they want to be or not. What happens is, of course, caricatures get developed of positions. Certainly, I was accused of things I never believed.”

He is referring to his portrayal as anti-free speech, and defends his record: “If anyone looked back, I actually issued the first free speech statement of a university leader in Canada 15 years ago, because I’m so committed to the importance of free speech within universities.” He adds that students and staff must feel able to contribute without being attacked “in ways that actually undermine their ability to participate in the conversation”.

At times the news coverage veered close to the personal, including friendly fire from several Cambridge academics criticising him in the press, but Toope appears to have managed to keep a healthy distance. “You have to dissociate the personal from the institutional to some degree,” he says. “Frankly, it was clear that some of this happened because I was at a place like Cambridge, I mean, no one would have cared if I was at certain other places.”

Toope believes the culture wars are happening now, at this particular point in history, because of the rise in populist politics: the trend is “connected to some of the forces that propelled Brexit forward, some of the courses that propelled President Trump forward” and fuelled by a sense of disconnect between elites and the rest of the population.

“It’s not by accident that this has emerged in the two countries where there’s been the weakest performance on Gini coefficients,” the measure of wealth inequality, he says, referring to the UK and the US. “Those are the two places where this has really reached its apogee.”

Normal people are frustrated by the growing wealth of elites, and that frustration has been exploited “because it was politically expedient to do so”.

In the UK, one issue that has become unhelpfully politicised is around limiting the number of people who go to university. “In other parts of the world: Korea, Canada, Australia, they’re trying to increase the number of people going to university because they see it as an opportunity to change the economic and social future for individuals and the country,” he points out.

Another example is the UK government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. “It’s simply an unnecessary piece of legislation,” Toope says. He believes free speech on campus in the UK is not a problem at all, and creating more legislation may even inhibit free speech.

An outsider’s perspective

Toope was born in Montreal, Canada and studied at Harvard and McGill, before completing his PhD at Cambridge. His research area is international law and human rights and his first v-c role was at the University of British Columbia from 2006 to 2014.

He says that parachuting in to Cambridge from Canada was beneficial because it made him an unknown quantity: “It makes people perhaps want to discover and listen in a different way than they would if they think they already know you.”

Being a globe-trotting academic also means Toope has seen Cambridge from an international perspective, and he thinks the government is missing a trick. Oxford and Cambridge, along with the royal family, are the biggest UK brands, he says, and yet “you tend to get the sense in which some people would love to just undermine what is one of the sources of soft power [for the UK]”.

As v-c of Cambridge, he has travelled the world (pre-Covid at least) and enjoyed unprecedented access to senior government, civic and business leaders, something the government could be harnessing. They “could actually see us more as a partner”, he says. “We could actually be a real asset in projecting an image of the UK that is forward-thinking, outward-facing, innovative.”

Collaboration not isolation

Academic collaboration with the rest of the world must also be strengthened, not obstructed, says Toope, and he is concerned it is moving in the wrong direction.

The UK has the specific barrier of access to Horizon Europe (still unknown at the time of going to press. Toope is not optimistic). “Creating national funding mechanisms, rather than funding mechanisms that are shared across geographies, will make it harder to collaborate,” he says.

For the rest of the world, geopolitical tensions are impeding collaboration. “It’s a huge problem if we can’t collaborate, especially with China.” The sheer scale of the country’s investment means it is now a genuine science power. “No single institution, no single country, even the biggest, has the capacity to do all of the work that’s necessary to advance really complicated issues like climate change, infectious disease, etc. We need to collaborate.”

And the risks? Of course we have to mitigate them, and we can, he says. Cambridge has developed a set of international principles to shape collaboration and provide online training for staff asking them to consider a range of issues, from intellectual property to academic freedom, safety and security.

The difficult area is, he concedes, dual-use technology. “Something that could seem as if it is completely benign might actually not be benign, if applied in a different way. So it’s a complicated assessment.” Nevertheless, the risk is necessary. “There’s a difference between being rigorous in the analysis and saying we don’t think we can work with you ever.”

There is also a bigger picture to consider in relation to global science, Toope warns. “It isn’t inevitable that we retain the position that we currently occupy. If other people work harder, if other people invest better and if other people develop connections that we don’t, then I think we could find ourselves starting to lose the edge that the West has had for a long, long time.”

He adds: “Of course, that’s exactly what other countries want to happen in the sense that they want to become the sources of innovation and the sources of discovery. And at some level, that’s a good thing. But if we just let that happen, that would be tremendously damaging for our society.”

Despite negative headlines and speculation that Toope is ending his potential seven-year term two years early because he couldn’t handle the media criticism, he says he is leaving satisfied that he hasn’t left any unfinished business, and his record does not point to a failed term.

In 2017, when Toope joined Cambridge, the university was ranked fourth in the THE World University Rankings, and it is now joint third. During his tenure he has increased philanthropic donations, launched initiatives to tackle sexual misconduct on campus, introduced wellness coordinators at each college to improve mental health, established a foundation year to enable more disadvantaged students to attend and increased participation of students from state schools from 64 to 72 per cent. He also steered the university through the pandemic.

What, then, is the secret to running a top university? Toope says it is focusing on a limited number of core objectives, and choosing objectives that lead to further change. Asking “what are the facilitating changes that allow other changes to take place, or other opportunities to be grasped?”

One example he has worked on at Cambridge, which he describes as “prosaic” but crucial, was improving financial transparency. “It was very difficult when I arrived at Cambridge to actually even understand our budget, and even understand our financial position, because of the complexity of very old systems that had sort of grown up over time.”

Now that he has sorted Cambridge’s accounting, he will be hopping back over the pond to take up the role of president and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. For now, it seems Toope’s culture war is over.

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.


Print headline: An open-and-shut case

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Reader's comments (1)

It's said that every political project contains an educational project, so it's not surprising that politicians would comment on academic "soft power" and show an interest in who is wielding it and for what purposes.


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