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Interview: Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor

The new Vice-Chancellor says that he is excited – and ambitious – for Cambridge’s future.

- 7 minute read

Professor Stephen Toope had already run one of Canada’s largest universities and was comfortably settled in a role heading up a prestigious school of global affairs. What could possibly tempt him away?

For the University of Cambridge’s new Vice-Chancellor, it was the chance to return to his academic roots. But the offer still came as a shock.

“When I received the call from the vice-chair of the University Council saying that I had been selected, my first reaction was one of incredulity. I simply did not expect that that would be the result,” said Professor Toope, newly installed in the Vice-Chancellor’s office.

That reaction is entirely in keeping with the new Vice-Chancellor’s self-deprecating style. But given his background, there was little doubt in the minds of those selecting a successor for Sir Leszek Borysiewicz that Professor Toope stood out from a global field.

His PhD in Cambridge followed a Harvard undergraduate degree in English history and literature, and two law degrees from McGill, where he went on to become the youngest ever Dean of the law school.

Vice-Chancellor Stephen J Toope

Memories of Trinity

After McGill, Professor Toope headed up Canada’s independent educational charity, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, before taking over as President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of British Columbia.

Even as he carried out his administrative duties, he remained active in international law, through roles including his chairing of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. Indeed, it was a desire to return to a fuller academic engagement with his field that led him to take up the Directorship of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

But when a headhunter contacted him about the Cambridge role, it was too much to resist. “I didn’t even know they were looking,” said Professor Toope, but the call took him straight back to his days doing a PhD at Trinity College.

“Coming back, I was gobsmacked at the evolution of Cambridge and changes to everything it seemed to embody back then”

“My PhD was, for me, genuinely a magical experience. It was one of the reasons it was so easy for me to say ‘yes’ when I was first approached about the possibility of becoming Vice-Chancellor.

“I had a fabulous thesis supervisor, Sir Derek Bowett, who was tremendously gifted in his field in international law. I learned so much from him and I met many friends who remain some of my closest friends to this day.” Indeed, on the day of his installation, Professor Toope hosted a small lunch for his closest friends from those Cambridge days, other PhD students and their spouses. He describes it as “the most surprising, but wonderful, of reunions”.

His family was less surprised by the appointment, his wife, Paula, long ago realising that the quiet professor she thought she had married had turned into a distinguished academic leader.

Challenging timing

Professor Toope was formally admitted as Cambridge’s 346th Vice-Chancellor on 2 October in a ceremony where he pledged – in Latin, of course – to perform his duties “well and faithfully”.

His appointment was announced over a year ago. He has used the time since then to meet key figures in and around the University, and to engage with alumni. But he has been careful not to join in public discussions before being installed. “I certainly didn’t want to become one of those people who takes on a job before he arrives. I was in a position of listening and learning.”

That ceremony in Senate House was the first opportunity for people to hear the fruits of that patient study. As well as paying tribute to his predecessors and the rich traditions of the University, Professor Toope was open about not just his own reaction to the role, but also the reaction of close friends.

“The most common response among people who knew me was: ‘Wow!’” he recalls. But these friends also challenged his timing, questioning whether the decision to take the role was wise at a time of unprecedented upheaval in Britain’s political life.

“My father was an Anglican priest. We were not wealthy. So my whole academic career was based on scholarships. I couldn’t have gone to any of the universities I went to without that support”

He knows that he faces tough challenges. But his record of steering institutions through challenging times speaks for itself – UBC board chair Bill Levine called his accomplishments as president “truly outstanding”. And despite the challenges, he was upbeat in his address: “I remain resolutely confident in universities’ ability to endure and contribute despite – perhaps even because of – the fast pace of change. Universities – and in particular universities with a global reach, like Cambridge – are uniquely positioned not only to cope with, but indeed to embrace, complexity.”

Professor Toope is in no doubt about the challenges ahead: the implications of Brexit, the debate about student fees – with its potential impact on university income – and the unrelenting pressure to widen access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In keeping with the reputation gained at UBC for focusing on the student experience, Professor Toope is clear about one urgent issue. “We face more and more complexity in dealing with student issues such as mental health, inclusion and health generally.”

But he believes Cambridge – with its college structure – offers unique advantages in providing the pastoral care to support students and help them achieve their potential. Supporting this and driving wider access, he acknowledges, will require philanthropic support.

“My father was an Anglican priest. We were not wealthy. So my whole academic career was based on scholarships. I couldn’t have gone to any of the universities I went to without that support,” said Professor Toope, who led a successful fundraising campaign at UBC, which surpassed its 1.5bn Canadian dollar (£900m) goal.

A need to serve

That family background provided more than a commitment to scholarships, bursaries and philanthropy. It gave him a deep sense of the need to serve the community.

“I also inherited a clear set of principles – an obligation to offer one’s best, a refusal to accept the easy or the expedient path, a duty to truth, even if it is but seen through a glass darkly,” he said in his inaugural speech.

The apparent earnestness and severity of the statement is belied by the infectious enthusiasm and sense of fun that comes across in every meeting with the University’s new leader.

Professor Toope and his wife, Paula Rosen, a speech pathologist, will live in Cambridge, but their three adult children, and a recently born granddaughter remain in Canada. So the return to Cambridge is exciting for the new Vice-Chancellor, but tinged with a little regret. “Moving away from a gorgeous little one has been hard for me and Paula.”

But right now, the excitement predominates. “Because I was here so long ago, I really had a view of Cambridge that was rooted around the river and the old Colleges. Coming back, I was gobsmacked at the evolution of Cambridge and changes to everything it seemed to embody back then.”

Despite his surprise at the cranes looming over the city, and the dramatic changes the University has seen since he left, there is an underlying familiarity to all alumni coming back.

“It is a wonderful feeling – to come home, in a sense. It closes a circle that has given me friendships, a gift of knowledge and encouragement for my career. This is going to be a wonderful period of learning for me.”

Read the Vice-Chancellor’s speech in full; and to see a special video message to alumni.