Professor Stephen J Toope

I am very pleased to share the first in a series of regular posts collecting some of my thoughts on our University and its future.

I experienced first-hand what happens when a university chooses the path of openness and diversification.

Professor Stephen J Toope

My first full term in office has flown by. It has not allowed me to get a full picture of the collegiate University’s activities, but it has served to confirm, in my mind, the excellent work that our students, lecturers, researchers, staff and alumni are involved in every day.

The past two months have given me the opportunity to reflect on one of the themes of my first address to the University, in which I pledged to work to make Cambridge even more open to the world. How does Cambridge put into practice this ideal of openness?

Being literal about it, one might note the University’s openness to the community through initiatives like the Festival of Ideas, which this year attracted over 23,000 people to some 230 mostly free talks, lectures, screenings and performances. This is an example of a university fully committed to sharing its spaces and communicating its ideas to a wider public.

So too are the Faculty of English’s new partnership with the BBC in its national short story awards, or the “Physics at Work” outreach initiative that attracts close to 2,400 secondary school students each year to the Cavendish Labs.

The University’s open approach to the issue of animal research has recently been commended. A series of films made by the University, which illustrate how research using animals helps us to better understand conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder, was earlier this week awarded a 2017 Openness Award.

I said on my first day in office that I wanted Cambridge to be “a fully inclusive university, as open as possible to talented people, no matter their geographic origins or their background”. This means, among other things, being able to attract global talent. But the pre-requisite for this is, of course, the ease of movement of people (and their skills and ideas) across borders. The university will continue to raise this crucial issue with the government, particularly to ensure that the rights of our European colleagues are fully protected as the UK prepares to leave the EU.

Diversity in our student intake – geographical as well as social – is also essential. Our excellence is built on it.

I experienced first-hand what happens when a university chooses the path of openness and diversification. I was a teacher of public international law in Canada, in the eighties, when universities started admitting a much higher number of international students. This had a profound and positive impact on my classroom. The diversity of viewpoints in class meant that suddenly my students were exposed to perspectives they had never considered before. It made for better and more interesting discussions in class. I learned that we are all strengthened intellectually when our assumptions are challenged by people whose life experience is fundamentally different from our own.

The same is true about UK students from communities that have not historically sent many of their members to Cambridge. They, too, enrich the cultural, social and intellectual fabric of the university. We have a duty to be open to students irrespective of race, class and origin. More hard work is required, but Cambridge has achieved a great deal in its outreach programmes, in its financial support to students, and in its admissions processes.

It is not only students who underpin our diversity. We need to promote access throughout the University, and at all levels – encouraging, for instance, more women into professorships and positions of senior leadership, or finding and promoting talent in other traditionally underrepresented groups.

Openness to new ideas is a central part of the university experience – even when we disagree fundamentally with some of them. It is also a part of the university experience to challenge those ideas, robustly but respectfully, without shutting down free debate.

And might openness apply, also, to increasing the transparency of our own processes? The “Breaking the Silence” campaign, launched at the beginning of this term, sets a new standard for the way in which the university safeguards its students and staff, while nurturing a culture of mutual respect and consideration.

So is there a downside to openness? Occasionally – as we found out when experimenting with ways of being more open about how we communicate knowledge. When Professor Stephen Hawking’s PhD thesis, Properties of expanding universes, was recently published in digital form through our Open Access repository, the usually resilient system was very nearly overwhelmed by the demand. To date, Professor Hawking’s thesis has been viewed over 2 million times and downloaded by over 750,000 people. Openness indeed!

Before signing off until my next post, allow me to take this opportunity to wish you all a happy and restful holiday season.


The University of Cambridge welcomes comments on its pages. All comments are moderated. Please see our moderation guidelines.

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. For image use please see separate credits above.