Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope reflects on a campus culture that enables open discussions on race-related issues and robust challenges to racism

To be fully inclusive of the most diverse talent means recognising and speaking out against discrimination in any form.

Stephen J Toope

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 upsetting and, to me, deeply sad.

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

These are not only about 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.

They are about being patronised, profiled or pointed at. Or about experiencing a stream of ill-judged remarks or actions that chip away at someone’s sense of self.

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.

To be fully inclusive of the most diverse talent means recognising and speaking out against discrimination in any form. It means embracing exceptional talent; the rich mix of voices and experiences; and the unique chances to broaden our outlook that university life can offer.

Any words or actions that suggest talent is determined by colour, or by gender, or by sexual orientation are wrong, and have no place at Cambridge.

We let everyone down – white, black, brown – when we don’t educate ourselves and others about the strength of diversity. It is not acceptable for any one group to assume that it can be indifferent to race issues.

Our own biases can be held so deeply that we remain unaware of them. Challenging them will be uncomfortable.

But, to quote author Reni Eddo-Lodge, “You can’t skip to the resolution without having the difficult, messy conversation first. We’re still in the hard bit.”

To be a leader in defending equality and fostering inclusion, we must have an environment where we can openly discuss race-related issues, and feel empowered to robustly challenge racism.

There is no quick fix, but work is underway to address these complex issues.

Over the summer, we announced the launch of the Stormzy Scholarships to offer full financial support to some 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. The wording around our anonymous reporting tool has been updated to make clear that staff and students can use it to report racial harassment. 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.

We are developing ways to ensure our curriculum reflects the rich variety and diversity of view-points and traditions and schools of thought, and of increasing the representation of BAME staff in positions of leadership across the university.  A new Race Equality website will bring all our resources together in one place.

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. Equality and diversity must 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, the 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 on our walls, 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 and there was such joy in the image of the black women of Cambridge marking 70 years since the first black woman graduated from the University.

It has been 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.

The magnificent “History Makers” portrait exhibition of black graduates, organised by the Black Cantabs at the University Library, has seen the walls of the UL lined with 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 a place where they, too, can belong.

This is an extract from a speech delivered on 17 October. Read the full speech here.


Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.