About this speech

  • Title: Vice-Chancellor’s closing remarks
  • Speaker: Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: Wednesday 17 October 2018
  • Delivered at Race Equality event

Vice-Chancellor’s closing remarks

A few months back I met with a group of student representatives. 

One of them – a black, American postgraduate woman – said: “I have never felt so uncomfortable about being a black woman as I have here in Cambridge – and I grew up in the American south!”

This was – I’ll be completely honest – upsetting and, to me, deeply sad.

Over the past year I have spoken to, and heard from, numerous students and staff who have expressed concerns about racial inequality at Cambridge.

Some of it comes from simple observation of the world around them – the conspicuous imbalance between white and non-white students, for instance; or the conspicuous scarcity of BAME staff in senior academic or academic-related posts.

Some of it comes from personal experience:

The student explaining what it was like to be the only black undergraduate woman in her college…

Or the student singled out by a lecturer, on account of his ethnicity, as best qualified to answer questions about racial identity…

Or the member of staff, one of the few people of colour in her Faculty, feeling the burden of having to be a spokesperson for others like her – and taking on the added responsibilities with few resources (if any), and in her own time...

Or someone deciding not to complain about racially-motivated harassment to avoid the stereotype of 'angry'…

So many of the testimonies collected by Joanna, Sharon and their colleagues speak about the sense of isolation, dislocation or – to use a word Sharon has used before – heaviness experienced by those made to feel uncomfortable in their own skins.

It is heart-breaking – and, frankly, completely unacceptable.

We are not talking here about abstract legal notions of equality – as important as they are – but about how people experience inequality in their day to day life.

And it doesn’t even have to be the old-fashioned and overt forms of discrimination that (one hopes!) are now well and truly a thing of the past.

It can also be that stream of seemingly innocuous remarks or actions that chip away at someone’s sense of self – some of which may be unintentional, but are no less demeaning.

It is what the great American writer James Baldwin, speaking at the Cambridge Union in 1965, described as “[n]ot a catalogue of disasters… but those endless details that spell out to you that you are worth less.”

Studying or teaching at Cambridge is challenging enough, without people having to deal with being patronised, profiled or pointed at.

What happens in a university is often a reflection of wider societal issues. But I can tell you, having worked at many higher education institutions, that this is not the norm.

It should not be the norm here.

We claim to be at the forefront in all sorts of things –and we are! But we have to acknowledge that we are not leaders in this particular area. 

I want Cambridge to be better. 

I expect Cambridge to be better.

We have to learn, and listen. And that is part of the idea behind the survey that colleagues referred to earlier.

I said in my recent address to the University that we cannot be truly great as a university if we are not open to the social and cultural diversity of the world around us.

And I asked whether we can even 'call ourselves a place of excellence if we are not fully inclusive of the most diverse talent?'

Discrimination – in any form – is wrong… It is morally wrong… It is ethically wrong.

It is also stupid. I have said this before, and I will continue to say it.

It suggests that talent is determined by colour, or by gender, or by sexual orientation. 

If we truly believe in meritocracy, we cannot accept that talent is inclusive of one group and excludes another.

Not least because, by excluding, we miss out:

We miss out on exceptional talent; we miss out on the rich mix of voices and experiences; we miss out on one of the unique chances to broaden our outlook that university life can offer. 

We let everyone down – white, black, brown – when we don’t educate ourselves and others about the strength of diversity.

We let everyone down when one group assumes that it can be indifferent to race issues.

We let everyone down when we do not acknowledge our own biases – or, again quoting Baldwin speaking at the Cambridge Union, those “assumptions which we hold so deeply as to be scarcely aware of them”.

So I truly welcome today’s event, and the opportunity to have the sorts of conversations we have just had.

These are not comfortable conversations.

But, to quote another author closer to home [Reni Eddo-Lodge], 'You can’t skip to the resolution without having the difficult, messy conversation first. We’re still in the hard bit.'

And so here we are. Going through the hard bit.

I want Cambridge to be a leader in defending equality and fostering inclusion.

I want our University to be an environment in which we all feel free to openly discuss race-related issues, and we all feel empowered to robustly challenge racism.

We have much work to do to improve the experience of many of our BAME staff and students.

We must work on developing a curriculum that reflects the rich variety and diversity of view-points and traditions and schools of thought.

We must work on ensuring greater representation of BAME staff in positions of leadership across the university.

But pushing back against inequality should not only be the responsibility of those who are most affected by it. It is a responsibility for all of us.

There is no quick fix, but I am heartened by the plan of action that is already in place to address these complex issues.

Indeed, a lot of good work has been happening over the past few months:

Over the summer, we announced the launch of the Stormzy Scholarships to offer full financial support to black students admitted to study at Cambridge.

Dedicated funding has been allocated to create a new position in the Equality and Diversity team to help embed race equality in the University’s work.

A Diversity Fund to support initiatives and projects that promote diversity has been launched.

Dedicated Discrimination and Harassment Contacts have been named in various colleges, and have received appropriate training, with more to come.

A BAME Staff Network has just been set up, and I trust it will help create a space for colleagues to address, formally and informally, issues of race and ethnicity as they impinge on their working lives.

My deeply held hope is that, sooner rather than later, there will be no need to gather here again to discuss equality and diversity, because equality and diversity will have become deeply and irreversibly embedded in the university’s core work – whether it is education, research or administration.

One of the issues frequently brought up in discussions about race is the question of representation – or more precisely lack of representation – of people of colour in the stories told about Cambridge.

From the histories written about the University, to the images that hang in our colleges, there are not enough relatable faces and voices to instil in potential BAME staff and students the confidence that Cambridge can be a place 'for people who look like me'.

That is why the now famous photograph of the black men of Cambridge was so powerful.

That is why it was such a joy to see the photograph of the black women of Cambridge, taken more recently to celebrate 70 years since the graduation of the first black woman to attend Cambridge.

That is why it has been so uplifting to read the stories of success by black scholars and researchers, in areas ranging from archaeology to cancer, recently published on the University’s website as part of our Black History month celebrations.

That is why I was so delighted to visit – twice, in fact – the magnificent History Makers portrait exhibition, organised by the Black Cantabs at the University Library.

Those faces currently looking down from the walls of the UL tell refreshingly different stories of aspiration and achievement.

I was lucky to meet one of the individuals pictured in the portrait exhibition – Bez Adeosun – and his parents. The parents are Nigerian immigrants living in London. Their daughter, Bez’s older sister, applied to Cambridge, and got in. Bez thought: “Well, if she could do it, so can I.” And he did! And so he is now a final year HSPS student at Clare College.

This is precisely the kind of story that we should be telling.

The kind that says to everyone with the talent to study or work here – no matter where they are from, or what colour their skin, or what their gender, or sexual identity – that Cambridge is the place for them, too.