About this speech

  • Title: The inaugural address to the Regent House
  • Speaker: Professor Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: 1 October 2003
  • Delivered at Senate House, Cambridge

Speech transcript

Change and the University

History shows us that the University of Cambridge is capable of brilliant feats of continuity, even as it has changed radically over the centuries. Change generally happens slowly here, in diffuse ways, and even changes needed to sustain established values tend to be hotly contested. And yet, as the Red Queen told Alice, you have to run just to stay in the same place. How, then, are we to think intelligently about change, and move forward boldly and wisely amidst the usually cheerful but sometimes contentious chaos of daily university life?

Immersed of late in Christopher Brooke's history of the last hundred years at Cambridge, I have been struck anew by the familiar idea that although our times may seem like chaos, and history riddled with contingencies, some of our actions will surely have consequences reaching far into the future. Brooke notes "dramatic harbingers of change" in the 1870s, including the founding of Girton and Newnham Colleges and the benefaction from which would come the Cavendish Laboratory. And yet, he adds, "... in a very deep and very true sense Cambridge altered little in these years: and the roots and inspiration of such change as came lay far back in the past."

We, in our turn, share a responsibility to think deeply about the institution as it is today and as we imagine it in the future. Brooke's account fits with my own experience, which is that successful innovation in teaching and scholarship is almost always driven by individuals directly engaged in these endeavours. The same can be said of many institutional undertakings. Yet, whether scholar or administrator, and no matter what the particular passion that consumes each of us, we all carry a compass, a set of understandings as to what is distinctive and valuable about this community of scholars and students.

Over the past year, I have met many people here and read widely. There is, of course, much under debate. But on the evidence of what I have heard and read, I believe there is also quite broad agreement about the fundamental values that define our community and make it significant, and perhaps even about the changes needed to sustain these values. In my remarks today, I will reflect upon these values, the choices and decisions before us, and the Vice-Chancellor's role in it all. Since listening and learning - as opposed to holding forth - are a crucial part of this role, I preface what follows by emphasising my commitment to listening hard.

Sustaining our values

What are the values we cherish? I believe that the heroic and defining aspiration of a great university is to excellence within all the major domains of knowledge. Deeply embedded here, this aspiration carries heavy obligations. It requires judgments as to what constitutes excellence in teaching as well as research, by no means simple tasks. It requires us to make choices. Choosing is itself a complex matter, multiply influenced by historic strength, present interest and future opportunity. And, of course, it requires sufficient resources to support our choices - although, make no mistake, resources are necessary but not sufficient in the absence of high aspiration.

Closely allied to the pursuit of excellence is our commitment to the unity of research and teaching, and to the supervision system at the heart of our approach to learning. As David Ford remarked in the Gomes Lecture in February, "Most of us who are passionate about our fields have caught the passion from our teachers." And, conversely, students lead us down fresh paths and illuminate the familiar in new ways. This synergy is threatened today, here at Cambridge and at the great universities worldwide, as competition and funding focus more and more strongly on research to the potential detriment of teaching.

I am deeply committed to undergraduate education at this University, with academic studies at the core and the whole panoply of other activities which, together, add up to the Cambridge student's remarkable educational experience. Staying true to this imperative must not be at the expense of research and it will unquestionably be both costly and difficult. But the fact that it is hard must not deter us.

At Cambridge, teachers and students meet in the Colleges, and the Colleges play a crucial formal role in education. But they also mix scholarship with fellowship and friendship, and academic studies with ... everything else. They are by no means the only communities within the University, but they are a unique and marvellous embodiment of the idea of academic community. We cannot be complacent about the collegiate system, however. Holding on to our identity as academic communities is one of the great challenges facing universities today, for that identity is under assault. Ironically, the assault is driven by developments which I think we mainly welcome.

Arguably, the single most crucial development is demographic. Today, as at no time in Cambridge's past, two-career households are the norm, sometimes with children to raise and considerable commutes into work. This makes for less time for either spouse to devote to the life of a College, an academic department, or any other of the many overlapping communities that make up the whole. A second important development is the increased specialisation that has accompanied the explosion of knowledge in the past fifty years, particularly in the sciences. For students, there is simply more to learn about a particular subject, and their teachers, in turn, are drawn to identify more strongly with their academic subdiscipline than with the broader intellectual communities of the University.

Our response should not be to lament the passing of a Golden Age. Indeed, I do not believe that a Golden Age has passed. The growing inclusion of women in our community is wonderful, and how can one fail to celebrate extraordinary advances in knowledge? Once again, the complexity of our concerns affords no simple solution. In my view, most important by far is to affirm our sense of community as a defining value - and to make vigilance on its behalf inform all we do. This vigilance should influence the way physical spaces are refurbished or new facilities laid out. It should inspire new efforts to enhance the way the Colleges work with one another and with academic departments. It should be on the table in the formulation and discussion of University policy. We must address the fact that there are more than three thousand members of the University community who are effectively excluded from the Colleges, some of whom feel shut out and would like to participate in College life.

Now more than ever, it matters that Cambridge be a community accessible to all people. You might interpret this merely as a statement of political expediency at a time of strong government emphasis on increasing the number of talented but disadvantaged students at Cambridge and other leading universities. But I care deeply about this issue, not just access for school-leavers coming into the student body but also for women and minorities in the front ranks of scholarship. The reasons are simple. I believe a diverse university is richer and more interesting than one that is homogeneous, and I also believe it is morally incumbent on us to do everything within our power to open the doors of this University to the most qualified scholars and students, regardless of gender, socio-economic background or ancestry. We work hard at this already, but there is more to do and we need to keep our ambitions bold and our energies high.

The University is also a major contributor to society and the world. Starting here in the City of Cambridge, I have been delighted by the warm working relationships so evident between the University and the City leadership, the business community, and the arts. I am much impressed by the range of partnerships forged further afield, with other great academic institutions, corporations, and international organisations across the world. These relationships, at home and abroad, benefit us and our partners in many, many ways. And, as an array, they yield an important message: the fields of study within the University most commonly viewed as "useful" in contributing to economic prosperity, human health, and the quality of our environment are hugely valuable, but they are fundamentally inseparable from and no more valuable than those that so much enrich the lives of individuals in other ways, through literature, history, art, music, drama ...

This perspective demands of us, urgently, to find the best ways of transferring discoveries widely and promptly, for the practical and very real benefit of this nation and the world. Of that I have no doubt whatsoever. At the same time, however, it invites us to proclaim our commitment to scholarly endeavours that constitute the warp and weft of culture - and to such institutions as our distinguished University Press, that oldest and still flourishing form of knowledge transfer.

The role of the Vice-Chancellor

Scholarship, teaching and learning, these are the heart of the matter at Cambridge, and the people engaged in these tasks are the University's lifeblood. What are the tasks, then, for me as I put on the cassock of the Vice-Chancellor? How best do I step into the large shoes before me and sustain the remarkable achievements of recent years under the leadership of the Vice-Chancellor newly Emeritus?

My first responsibility, I believe, is stewardship of the University's values, describing what the University stands for, and why it is important and to be cherished. We attract scrutiny and criticism because we are indeed an institution of public and national importance. I anticipate being exasperated at times, but throwing one's hands in the air is surely the wrong thing to do. We have so much to be proud of, and our task is to work hard to separate fact from fiction and give the many graduates and friends of Cambridge the information, confidence and pride to speak in our support. The audience is diverse, from the dreaming 14-year-old in the back of a classroom to leaders of government and industry. The Vice-Chancellor must also listen, of course, to our external critics as well as our friends. Insularity and complacency are constant dangers for any great institution, and sometimes our critics may be on the mark.

The ambassadorial role is not the Vice-Chancellor's only or even primary responsibility. Here, within this community, I will do my best to make sure that we recognise the challenges we face and choose where to focus our energies and investments within the broad domains implied by our values. I am frankly wary of terms like "blueprint" and "vision" in the complex setting of a university. But the fact is that while the range of things we might do is almost limitless, our energies and resources are certainly not. Choosing to do things is not necessarily easy, and choosing not to do them is really difficult. But failing to choose at all is a disaster. It is the Vice-Chancellor's responsibility to ensure that intelligently conceived planning processes are in place and moving forward throughout the University, informing the direction of the University as a whole even as they chart the course of its many parts.

The record of physical renewal and expansion at Cambridge over the last decade is breathtaking. I believe that at this juncture we need to concentrate our planning - not exclusively but more intensely - on people and academic programmes. The challenges are enormous. We must compensate and support academic staff so that we can attract and keep the most outstanding senior and junior scholars. We must also compensate and give appropriate recognition to our academic-related and assistant staff, whose contributions are integral to the health of the University. We must make strategic investments in academic programmes that need strengthening, and in initiatives that lead toward new domains of inquiry. We must improve the ways in which the Schools, Departments and Colleges work together to forge the distinctive education we aspire to offer all our students. We must think hard about the future size of our student bodies, and about the support necessary to continue attracting the brightest and best undergraduates and postgraduate students, regardless of their backgrounds.

It is right that the academic players are on centre stage at Cambridge. But it would be a huge mistake to imagine that a modern university's greatness does not also depend vitally on its administration. Good administrative structures and processes contribute mightily to academic success, as does mutual respect between academics and those who serve the University in other ways. Like all universities endeavouring to cope with an increasingly complex world, Cambridge has had its share of bumps along the path in recent years, but this should not blind us to the impressive progress that has been made. For my own part, I readily admit to a serious interest in institutional nuts and bolts, and I look forward to working with colleagues within and outside the central administration on further improvements in the vital realm of service.

Giving voice to our values, making sure they frame our choices, helping ensure that the place runs well - three important responsibilities. But at the end of the day, all will come to naught if we do not have the wherewithal to support our aspirations. My fourth task, then, is to help develop financial resources for the long-term. The University is running a modest deficit, which is currently projected to grow. We have to wrestle this to the ground, support better what we are already doing, and make room for new investments. I welcome the current national debate about fees and other strategies for financing higher education. The greatest danger, in my view, is that of resolving the issues inadequately or not at all, for either would have devastating long-term consequences for the world-class stature of this University. We must participate constructively in the debate and explain clearly what's at stake, and we also need to look to our own devices. Cambridge is six years away from what is estimated to be the 800th anniversary of the founding of this University. It surely is a moment for us to galvanise broader support from our alumni and friends, and I plan to work hard at this.

A matter of trust

I have already singled out in these remarks the importance of listening. In closing, I have one further observation to make, and it has to do with trust. Trust is earned, but it must also be given. As Vice-Chancellor, I gladly put my trust in you. I would not be standing here today were it otherwise. I believe my first and abiding task is to earn your trust. But in some measure that trust must also be your gift, and as I pledge myself to earn your trust so I ask you to offer it. As John Dunn pointed out a decade ago, "There is, to be sure, an alternative to trust: a consistent and strategically energetic distrust. But ... this is apt rapidly to paralyse all capacity for cooperative agency."In the Reith lectures last year, Onora O'Neill talked about the possibility that we face a societal crisis of trust. Ultimately, she decided that probably we do not - but she did find "massive evidence of a culture of suspicion." These observations should give us pause for thought within our own small society here. Trust is of pivotal importance. Our opportunities are boundless, but we must trust one another enough to muster the collective will and skill so that together we can seize them. And we will.

1. The Red Queen's further observation is pertinent too: “If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Carroll, Lewis, 1872. Through the Looking Glass. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

2. Brooke, Christopher N.L., 1993. P.2 in A History of the University of Cambridge, Volume IV: 1870-1990. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. Ford, David F., 2003. Knowledge, Meaning and the World's Great Challenges: Reinventing Cambridge University in the Twenty-First Century. Gomes Lecture, Emmanuel College.

4. Richard, Alison, 2000. The Challenges Facing the University. P.140 in A Yale Album: The Third Century. Ed. Richard Benson. New Haven: Yale University Press.

5. Dunn, John, 1990. P.38 in Interpreting Political Responsibility. Cambridge: Polity Press.

6. O'Neill, Onora, 2002. P.19 in A Question of Trust: The BBC Reith Lectures 2002. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.