About this speech

  • Title: Annual address to the University
  • Speaker: Dr Anthony Freeling, Acting Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: Saturday 1 October 2022
  • Delivered at Senate House, Cambridge

Speech transcript

Colleagues, students, alumni.

The election and admission of the proctors at a Congregation of the Regent House mark the beginning of our academic calendar. So, too, in recent years, does the Vice-Chancellor’s Address to the University.

However, I believe that for the first time in our University’s history the annual Address is being delivered by an Acting Vice-Chancellor.

To be asked to step into the Vice-Chancellor’s role, is humbling – and daunting.

The scale of the role is made no less overwhelming by the knowledge that I am here for only a relatively brief period of time. I therefore stand before you today in great humility.

I am delighted that Council has recommended to the Regent House the appointment of Professor Deborah Prentice as the University’s next Vice-Chancellor and, assuming she is approved by the Regent House, she intends to take up the role in 9 months.

As my tenure will be short so too, you will be relieved to hear, will be my address.

My aim is simple: to reassure you that the transition between Professor Stephen Toope and Professor Prentice is underway. I have been using the analogy of a relay race to explain the approach we are taking. The aim is to get the baton from Stephen to Debbie as smoothly as possible. That means three distinct phases – I need to get hold of the baton, then to make the greatest possible progress, and finally to pass the baton on. Success in my role, as in the relay race, lies as much in the quality of the baton changes as in what I might do during my time in post.

The first stage is already complete. Stephen has been incredibly generous with his time in helping me understand the context in which we find ourselves, the plans that are in place and the opportunities and challenges we face. I thank him for that generosity.

We have far more than that to thank him for, however. He leaves us with the legacy of a collegiate University that is more open to diverse talent than ever; more financially transparent; more determined to rise to the challenge of climate change. A collegiate University that has recently concluded its most successful development campaign, raising £2.2 billion in vital philanthropic funds to attract the finest minds and give them the resources they need; a collegiate University that is clearer and more confident about how it engages with the world; a collegiate University that is about to begin an exciting new partnership to bring more than 1,000 young African scholars to Cambridge; a collegiate University that is more aware of – and more committed to supporting – student mental health; a collegiate University that is unequivocally committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression; a collegiate University that is… well… more collegial than it has ever been.

Thank you, Stephen, for your transformative vision for Cambridge; for your determination to make our University even greater; for steering collegiate Cambridge safely through some of the most challenging times any of us have known. And thank you, on a personal level to you and Paula for being such good friends to my wife Laurel and me.

Phase 2 starts today, with me firmly holding the baton. What and how will we progress? What will we focus on delivering, and how will we go about it?

I see my responsibility as continuing to advance the University’s mission, which is: to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.

That final word, excellence, is what I will focus on.

During my tenure as Acting Vice-Chancellor, academic excellence will be our touchstone. Whatever choices the University has to make, whatever policies the University seeks to adopt – we should ask: 'Is this something that one of the world’s great universities should do to enhance its academic excellence?' That must be the test.

But Cambridge is multifaceted, so there will be different views about what academic excellence means in the context of our University’s many different activities.

What does academic excellence mean in research: to academics, to their students and trainees, to their Departments, to their Schools, to their Colleges and overall to the entire Collegiate University? What does academic excellence mean for the activities of our professional staff as they support those endeavours? What does academic excellence mean in teaching and learning? What does it mean in further and online education, or in publishing and assessment?
We have to ask: how will this particular choice, how will that particular activity, enhance our academic excellence? And in particular, are we investing enough in our people so they are inspired to work here to achieve this excellence? We need to be confident we have the resources and time to implement what we choose. And if, or more likely when, we disagree, I will work diligently to bring people together to take the time to understand each other’s perspectives and to reach a decision that we then enact.

Academic excellence is the touchstone. Success, however, depends not just on what you are trying to achieve, but on how you go about it.

The experience of the pandemic has taught us how important it is for all our moving parts to operate in concert – and indeed, how much can be achieved when we do.

In times of challenge – and the months ahead will certainly be challenging in many ways, not least as we make the necessary adjustments to help our communities cope with the country’s cost of living crisis – I will work across collegiate Cambridge to help us pull together and achieve this shared purpose, building further on the advances we have already made in coordinating our complex ecosystem.

Whether addressing climate change, the cost of living or student wellbeing, the central University, the academic Departments, and the Colleges must work more closely than ever, and we must collaborate more effectively than ever.

In short, working collaboratively to enhance Cambridge’s academic excellence will be the guiding principle of my time in office, and my unrelenting focus, before handing over the baton to my successor.

That third phase, handing over to the next Vice-Chancellor, is critically important to achieving our mission. I will work with Debbie to ensure she has what she needs to receive the baton. We will work together as she develops her ideas for the leadership she wishes to bring to Cambridge. That will enable me to hand over not just responsibility but also give her the information that will help her hit the ground running. That will be key to ensuring the transition from Stephen to Debbie is truly effective.

Three phases, then: getting hold of the baton, making the greatest possible progress while in post, and then passing on the baton.

I’d like to conclude though, with one final plea.

Of course, steering this great University, and keeping it on course, cannot possibly depend on a single individual. It is the richness and diversity of talent in our collegiate University environment that makes Cambridge unique.

And the things we want to achieve, we can only achieve together.

Students, scholars and professional staff employed by the University and by the Colleges support our mission; our extraordinary alumni, dispersed around the globe, support our mission; the University’s Press and Assessment teams in Cambridge and beyond support our mission.

We are united in our aspirations, and in our collective enterprise. Together, we form an extraordinary community who come together for the greater benefit of the whole.

We take great pride in being a self-governing community of scholars. We place great stock in protecting academic freedom. And we make great efforts to embed freedom of expression.

The University’s governance relies ultimately on members of its Regent House engaging, discussing and voting on the issues that matter most to them.

But participation in the University’s democratic life has been, for as long as I’ve observed it, fairly limited. Discussions on some of the great issues of the day – from retirement age to freedom of speech, from the management of sport to the management of our estate – have often been left to a small minority of Regent House members who feel strongly enough to mobilise and vote.

I have made this point repeatedly as a member of Council, and today I make it as Acting Vice-Chancellor: our democratic systems of governance require widespread participation. When important votes come to the Regent House, my plea is for each of you who is a member of Regent House to engage in the debates, and then to use your vote.

It is your democratic right, and a democratic duty.

If you vote, whichever way you vote, we will then know that the direction of the University is indeed a collective endeavour.

I ask this of all of you now so when I complete my time in office, brief though it may be, the University of Cambridge will be stronger, more aligned and more collaborative than ever.

Thank you.