About this speech

  • Title: Keynote address
  • Speaker: Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: 29 September 2018
  • Delivered at Aga Khan Centre, London

Keynote address

Your Highness, Princess Zahra Agha Khan

Mr Firoz Rasul, President of the Aga Khan University

Mr Naguib Kheraj, Trustee of the Aga Khan University

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, colleagues, friends.

I am truly honoured to be invited to speak on such an auspicious occasion as this – both a celebration of the opening of this magnificent Centre, and of the 35th anniversary of the Aga Khan University.

In a previous role, as President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of British Columbia, I had the privilege to explore, develop and celebrate many links – both personal and institutional – with the Aga Khan Foundation.

I am grateful to be given the opportunity – now in my role of Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge – to affirm and strengthen ties of friendship and collaboration between our two institutions.

As His Highness the Aga Khan, Chancellor of the Aga Khan University, marks his Diamond Jubilee, we celebrate also his foresight in opening this visionary international university.

Since its foundation 35 years ago, the Aga Khan University has changed the lives of its more than 14,000 alumni – many of whom would not otherwise have had access to a tertiary education.

It has changed the lives of the many thousands more who have been taught, served or led by those graduates, and who have been treated at its teaching hospitals and clinics.

And it will change the lives of many more.

As AKU grows, so too does the international community it serves.

It currently operates in six countries across three continents. It will continue to expand in the coming months with the opening of its first Faculty of Arts and Sciences in Karachi and, later, another such faculty in Arusha, Tanzania.

The recent opening of this Centre has increased the University’s capacity in the UK. It is another major step in the life of this important international institution.

And what a stunning place this is – designed by Japan’s Fumihiko Maki and associates, but incorporating the traditional courtyard gardens and rooftop terraces of Islamic buildings, and situated here, in the very heart of London.

It is a building that crosses cultural boundaries, and breaks them down. Much like the extraordinary Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, the opening of which I was also privileged to attend.

The principal occupant of this building is the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, which aims to undertake research and provide education in the finest traditions of a free and independent academia.

In a world where many minds appear to be closing, the Institute promotes scholarship that opens up new perspectives on Muslim heritage, modernity, culture, religion and society.

It is aspirational and it is inspirational.

Because it is crucial that, in the 21st century, we find new ways of seeing, new ways of sharing our ideas, and new ways to tackle the gargantuan challenges that face this planet.


I am now the custodian of a university that has been established over more than 800 years, and I am keenly aware that this is a challenging time for universities.

Cambridge, which has shown its resilience through the centuries, is being tested today as the UK’s higher education sector is buffeted by winds of change.

New regulation, political volatility and the uncertainty over Brexit are just part of what confronts us.

Criticism and discontent about universities are a constant feature in the editorial pages of the national press and in social media.

This is far from exclusive to British universities – similar distrust simmers throughout the world, alongside budget pressures and the pressure to justify our work.

Universities are criticised for being bastions of privilege.

For not engaging with the disadvantaged.

For not encouraging more diversity.

For not upholding free speech.

For being irrelevant in the 21st century.

Of course, there is always work to be done and I am the first to admit that we have areas to improve.

But as the late University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils said of such criticisms, 30 years ago, “some are good… many are poor. Nevertheless… societies cling to [universities]. The universities do not survive simply because professors have a vested interest in their survival... These societies cling to them because, in the last analysis, [universities] are their last best hope for a transfigured existence.”


Our last best hope for a transfigured existence.

“…a transfigured existence”.

That’s quite a tall order for our universities. But it’s a challenge we must always accept and work to make real.


Although we in Cambridge revel in our institution’s long history, age really isn’t important when it comes to universities.

What matters is their values.

What matters is their commitment to ground-breaking research, to transformative education, and to encouraging free and independent thought.

Thought that probes and provokes.

Thought that interrogates prevailing paradigms.

Thought that challenges conventional or received wisdom.

Thought that leads to discussion – that leads to collaboration – that leads to more thought – that leads to ideas – that in turn lead to research and innovation – all of which adds up to human development at its very best.

“A transfigured existence.”


Universities are places where minds are encouraged to develop, and where ideas flourish.

Universities – seats of learning and discovery – are places that can change the world.

Places where the breakthroughs are made, and the innovations developed, that fuel our future.

Places where potential leaders – academic, entrepreneurial, political, artistic and civic – are nurtured.

Places where knowledge is created, collected, curated and communicated, unencumbered by the imperatives of profit or policy.

Places that unite. Places where governments, international organisations, businesses, the non-profit sector and leading researchers and thinkers come together to find solutions to urgent global problems.

To quote the Aga Khan himself, universities are places that “contribute powerfully to building new bridges of unison… that blend many distinctive voices into an intelligent, resonant whole”.


We live, I regret to say, in a time of anxiety and fear.

At such times, it becomes easier for many to retreat behind barriers – to build the walls of isolation rather than the bridges of unison.

Barricaded behind those walls, people can pretend that the sometimes overwhelming problems of the world do not exist – or do not relate to them

They can hide from the things they do not want to see – and the things they do not want to hear.

But as George Orwell once said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Yet the liberty to speak about our perceptions of the truth does not mean the right to ignore the opinions of others.

In telling people what they may not want to hear, we must be sensitive to the anxiety in the community, and the very genuine reasons for it.

We need to understand cultural and economic differences so that we may find the words to speak of our objectives and achievements in ways that do not patronise.

Our challenge as universities is to tell our stories – our positive stories – in a way that is both persuasive and powerful.

We must engage with the communities we serve, and we must show them that we have their interests at heart.

That their interests are our interests.

We must cut windows through those walls of isolation.

We must open our doors, and invite our communities to see what we do.

We must assume a position of modesty.

And we must listen, because through listening we will learn what people hope to hear from us, and to connect our stories to theirs.

Through genuine listening, we will counter the perception that universities are elite institutions, and by telling our stories we will show that universities are far from strongholds of the establishment.

In fact, universities have throughout history been dynamic catalysts for change.

They have often been the springboards for revolutions – whether political, economic, or technological.

And it is no accident that university campuses are often the first places to be shut down by autocrats.

But perhaps we should ask critics of higher education, as I have asked myself, where the world would be without universities?

It may be trite to say simply that life would be different without universities, but it is a fact that antibiotics as we know them would not exist without universities.

That our current understanding of chemistry, biology and of physics would not exist without universities.

That computers – that the internet – that our smart phones – would not exist without universities.

That today’s cars, trains and aeroplanes would not exist without universities.

That many of the greatest achievements in the arts – literature, music, theatre, architecture – could not exist without universities.

And that none of these things would exist, unless our scientists and writers, our professors and scholars, our engineers and lawyers, had the freedom to think and to fearlessly pursue their ideas.


Like all that is good and right, academic freedom comes with obligations. Albert Einstein recognised this when he said:By academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right implies also a duty: one must not conceal any part of what one has recognised to be true. It is evident that any restriction on academic freedom acts in such a way as to hamper the dissemination of knowledge among the people and thereby impedes national judgment and action.”

So scholars must be prepared both to say what people do not want to hear, and to admit their own mistakes.

But this precious academic freedom requires the ability to operate free of external intervention.

This autonomy is not a luxury. It is an indispensable condition for excellence.

Deprived of the ability to decide what we teach and research and why, universities are on thin ice.

In a conflict between our institutions and those who would hold us in check, academic freedom becomes the collateral damage.

Mathematician and philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet recognised the danger when he wrote from his gaol cell, during the French Revolution:

“No branch of the government should have the authority, or even the means, of preventing the teaching of new truths or the development of theories contrary to its special policies or its momentary interests.”

Himself an academic who traversed different disciplines – he was one of the first scholars to apply mathematics systematically in the social sciences – the Marquis de Condorcet believed in equality of the sexes, women’s suffrage, free education for all and the abolition of slavery.

He understood that it is our autonomy that allows us to defend the values of academic freedom that are so vital to our existence as universities.

He was ultimately branded a traitor for criticising the French Constitution of 1793.

The Marquis died in prison.


While here in Britain we must contend neither with totalitarianism nor a reign of terror, the number of policies and regulations that expect us constantly to demonstrate our economic value is on the rise.

Like my peers across the nation, I have had to defend our need to have the space for intellectual inquiry that may not have obvious immediate impact, nor obvious economic value.

The truth is that we have no metrics by which to show the possibilities inherent in today’s blue sky research.

We do not yet know those possibilities. That is the point.

When Newton developed his theory of gravity, could he have thought that human beings would one day walk on the moon?

When Einstein pioneered his work on lasers, could he have imagined that they would one day be used to perform life-saving keyhole surgery?

When scientists built the first computer, filling an entire room, did they anticipate that we would one day carry something far more powerful in our pockets?

The changes wrought in our society are not only technological and scientific.

Ideas that are incubated in the safety of a university laboratory or common room or lecture hall or library – ideas that occur across every faculty of our institutions – are the sparks that ignite the transformation of society.

Those ideas emanate from our greatest assets – our talented men and women – our scholars.

People like Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon who dreamed of university education and votes for women.

Could they have imagined that one day women would not only be awarded degrees – not only enter politics – but lead nations?

We do not yet know what the solution to many of our global problems may be, but we who value universities understand that, to find those solutions, we must think more broadly and in a more joined up way than ever before.

As the challenges facing the world grow, so too does our need for universities, and our need for talented, educated, resourceful and thoughtful scholars and graduates.

We must rely for our answers, not only on the scientists and the engineers, but on the experts in the humanities and social sciences.

We need their capacity to see beyond the scope of the problems themselves.

We need their ability to put a human perspective on the challenges we face.

We need their words to articulate the very questions we must answer.

And so we must continue to value and fiercely to defend scholarship, autonomy and the right to academic freedom.

We must set an example for our students, and of course for the community at large.

We must give our scholars the freedom to absorb our values, but not bind them to particular theories.

We must inspire our students to read widely; to listen to the ideas of others; and to make their own judgments based on the available facts.

And we must ensure the foundations on which they stand are sound, so that they may have the courage of their own convictions – to stand up for what they believe to be right and to speak their truth, even where it does not fit within the dominant paradigm.

That way we produce the leaders that are so desperately needed in our society, whether in business, politics, the arts or any other sphere of human endeavour.

Leaders who will take on the world’s challenges of unprecedented complexity.

Leaders who, applying what they have learned at their alma maters, will seek to cut those windows in the walls of isolation.

Leaders who value education, diversity and the exchange of cultures.

Leaders who can build those bridges of unison.

Who understand that we need great scientists and writers, engineers and doctors, economists and innovators.

That we need artists and we need deep thinkers, free to imagine what seems unimaginable, and who can make possible the impossible.

That we need universities.

We must recognise the greatness of which human beings are capable, so long as they have the wisdom and the freedom to see.

And in doing so, we allow ourselves the potential to transfigure our own existence.