About this speech

  • Title: Inaugural address
  • Speaker: Professor Deborah Prentice, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: Wednesday 5 July 2023
  • Delivered at Senate House, Cambridge

Speech transcript

Colleagues, students, friends,

Since arriving in Cambridge in early Spring the question I have been asked most often is: “Why did you take this job?”

I have spent most of my professional life at Princeton, so the decision to move from the East Coast of the United States to the East of England was not one I took lightly. But to anyone who is passionate about the transformative power of good ideas, few things could be as exciting as an invitation to lead the university that has given birth to so many of them.

For those who, like me, have long observed the United Kingdom’s higher education system from abroad, the University of Cambridge stands out as a beacon of global excellence in education and research. Its rollcall of Nobel laureates and prize winners, its steady flow of ground-breaking research, its gathered field of inventors and innovators, its list of distinguished alumni, all speak loudly of Cambridge’s place in the world of discovery and scholarship.

Like most academics, I am a student at heart. For the past several months, since arriving in April, I have been in an immersive course of study on all things Cambridge. I have had inductions into the work of the Schools, the Colleges, the administrative offices, and Cambridge Press & Assessment. I have attended all the committees and boards I will chair and many others that I need to understand. I have had conversations with small groups of colleagues on issues of huge significance, including sustainability, and the fundamental importance of nurturing freedom of speech in our universities. I have met His Majesty the King, the Chancellor, and many other distinguished alumni. I have toured gardens, museums, libraries, and construction sites. I have learned my way around Cambridge well enough to transition my mode of travel from two feet to two wheels. Best of all, I have met a great many of the people – students, staff, and alumni – who make the collegiate university ecosystem such a wonderful place to study and work.

Among the conversations I have enjoyed most are the ones I had with four former Vice-Chancellors of the University: Lord Alec Broers, Dame Alison Richard, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, and Professor Stephen Toope. Cambridge is fortunate to have the continued wisdom and support of this august group. The former Vice-Chancellors had wonderful things to say about their times in office, and I heard more than once that it is “the best job in the world.”

My immediate predecessor, Dr. Anthony Freeling deserves special thanks. As Acting Vice-Chancellor, Anthony defined his role as facilitating the transition from Stephen Toope to me. In his introductory address to the University, Anthony used the metaphor of a runner in a relay race, taking the baton from Stephen in October and passing it to me in July.

Anthony has done exactly this, with great skill, patience, and generosity. He has been the architect of my induction period and one of its principal agents, always willing to explain, answer questions and talk things through while simultaneously carrying out the responsibilities of the Vice-Chancellor at a very demanding time. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Being in Cambridge, living and learning here for the past few months, has deepened my understanding of the significance of this institution, for scholarship and discovery certainly, and also for the world beyond the academy. The fact that King Charles chose Cambridge’s Whittle Laboratory as the first place he visited after his coronation was a powerful indication that the UK and the wider world look to Cambridge experts and expertise for solutions to some of the weightiest problems – including how to make aviation more sustainable.

The world also looks to Cambridge for partnership. Nowhere is this more evident than on the Biomedical Campus, where an extraordinary partnership between the National Health Service and the University has created a thriving hub of research and outstanding clinical care that benefits the entire region. Current plans call for the Biomedical Campus to be the site of a new specialised hospital for the treatment of cancer and an innovative new children’s hospital – the first children’s hospital in the East of England – and one that offers an integrated approach to the treatment of physical and mental health.

Universities play a significant part in the economic development of their regions and the nation, and this is certainly true of the University of Cambridge. A recent study that sought to quantify this impact estimates that Cambridge’s overall contribution to the UK economy is close to £30bn per year. The wider impact on the creation of jobs, wealth and wellbeing is immeasurable.

For Cambridge to continue to serve as an engine of progress and solutions to the world’s toughest challenges, I want to focus on what this place does best: nurturing academic excellence. That is our bedrock, the wellspring of our success and our impact on the world. Of course, academic excellence does not emanate from the Vice-Chancellor’s office. It lives in classrooms, study rooms, libraries, laboratories, museums, and indeed, dining halls, cafes, common rooms, at picnic tables, and on patches of lawn – anywhere members of this collegiate university come together in contemplation, conversation, and debate. I see my role as an enabler, supporting and creating environments in which our academics and students can be and do their best.

In my short time at Cambridge, I have had the opportunity to appreciate and celebrate the wonderful achievements of our students, staff, and alumni. I have also seen the real challenges facing our staff, including the spiralling cost of living. And, despite their celebrations on the Lawn right beside us in recent days, I have seen the challenges for our students, who after years of educational disruption beyond their control are now faced with the impacts of the marking and assessment boycott. I want to work with all of you to address these and other shared challenges and to ensure Cambridge’s continued excellence.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the past few months has been meeting so many people who are actively engaged in moving Cambridge forward. Here, I would include the leadership of the Colleges, leaders of student bodies, generous donors, Heads of Schools, Faculties, Departments, and non-School institutions, pro-Vice-Chancellors, professional services colleagues, and so many others who want to have a voice and make a difference in the life of this great university. They offer new ideas and opportunities for solving shared challenges and have shown a remarkable willingness to come together for the common good. Successful collaborations have enabled the University to meet its goals for broadening access, to make new academic appointments, and to strengthen support for student mental health. With their continued engagement, I am confident we can make progress on the challenges we are currently facing.

That enables me to look to the future with optimism. I know how much Cambridge already does for the city, for the region, for the country, and for the world through the people it educates and the discoveries it makes. I believe it can do even more. Because I cannot imagine an institution that is better equipped to contribute to society in real and meaningful ways. The ideas that change the world, the discoveries that upend conventional wisdom, the solutions to the world’s most intractable problems – those happen at Cambridge. That, to answer the initial question, is why I took the job.

As I stand here before you, I am reminded by my formal cassock and the ceremony just completed, that I am taking responsibility for a very long and celebrated history of academic excellence. I am Cambridge’s 347th Vice-Chancellor, a fact I find enormously humbling and, at the same time, clarifying. It highlights that I too am like a runner in a relay race, taking the baton from Anthony and passing it on, when my term is over, to the 348th Vice-Chancellor. My task then is to work with the extraordinary Cambridge community to ensure the health and wellbeing of this University and its inhabitants while I hold the baton and to continue to fortify the University’s foundations so that the institution I bequeath to my successor is at least as strong as the one I am inheriting. That is a task I wholeheartedly embrace and to which I will devote myself with great passion and energy in the years to come.

Thank you.