Douglas Murray

Cambridge deserves better than Stephen Toope

Cambridge deserves better than Stephen Toope
Stephen Toope (Credit: YouTube)
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Regular readers may be aware that in recent months I have been having a running-spat with a Canadian lawyer called Stephen Toope. I am rarely exercised by Canadian lawyers, but this particular one is the current Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, and he seems intent on running that crown jewel of an institution into the ground. 

Since taking over as Vice-Chancellor, Mr Toope has been responsible for a wide array of anti-free speech initiatives through which, as I recently remarked in the Daily Telegraph, he appears to want to transform Cambridge University into something like the Canadian bar association, but without the thrills, or the pay.

Anyhow – our spat came to a head after Cambridge last month published its new guidance for informers. 

The purpose of this new initiative was to allow students and faculty to anonymously inform on each other and report 'micro-aggressions'. 

As I accurately wrote in the Telegraph, one of the examples of a micro-aggression offered by Cambridge's website for informers was a member of the university raising an eyebrow while any member of a minority was speaking. In the wake of the negative publicity, Toope had the website for informers taken down, claiming that it had gone off early, that the dog had eaten it, or some such lame excuse.

Anyhow, to my great amusement, Mr Toope has finally found some friends at Cambridge, or at least some suckers-up willing to write a half-arsed defence of him. Thus this letter appeared in the letters pages of the paper at the weekend. Here is the text in full:

Sir - 

Douglas Murray has twice made unwarranted and highly personal attacks on the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, Professor Stephen J Toope (Comment, May 22 and June 8).

As heads of the University’s six academic schools, we are independent of the central administration, but we cannot stand by as Professor Toope is subject to such gross misrepresentation.

Cambridge is a democratic institution with roots stretching back 800 years. This means that no vice-chancellor can impose their will on the university, and all policy decisions proceed through an intricate and finely balanced committee structure. While we are sure generations of vice-chancellors have found this frustrating, it is a fact of life at Cambridge.

Mr Murray makes the absurd suggestion that Professor Toope wants to limit free speech and push an agenda in which academics can be punished for raising an eyebrow at a student. The reality is more mundane. Errors were made during the launch of a campaign to introduce new policies and procedures covering conduct in the workplace. The campaign website was taken down as soon as the mistakes were spotted and the policy and procedures are now subject to further democratic scrutiny.

Professor Toope is an eminent international lawyer and experienced university leader. He has made clear his commitment both to championing freedom of expression and to making the university a welcoming place for our students and staff, who hail from all over the world. The two aims are complementary, not incompatible. As a leader, he commands respect from across the University and as senior academics we offer him our unwavering support.

Professor John Dennis, Head of the School of Technology

Professor Tim Harper. Head of the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences

Professor Patrick Maxwell, Regius Professor of Physic and Head of the School of Clinical Medicine

Professor Nigel Peake, Head of the School of the Physical Sciences

Professor Anna Philpott, Head of the School of the Biological Sciences

Professor Chris Young, Head of the School of Arts and Humanities

I much enjoyed reading this attempt to defend Toope. Because if this is the best that the case for the defence has, then the defence is indeed what we used to call 'piss-poor'.

Let me take these academics' points one at a time:

First, they say that 'Cambridge is a democratic institution…with a finely balanced committee structure'. But if this is so, why was formal approval not sought from the General Board and Council of the university for all parts of this recent initiative? The reason that Toope himself gave for the website being taken down was that it had not received proper scrutiny.

And if the structure of accountability at the university works so well, why did he not seek approval via the proper democratic mechanism? That would have been done by issuing a 'Publication' in the Cambridge Reporter, which would have to be followed by a 'Discussion' for scrutiny from Regent House before the final 'Grace' (that is, democratic authorisation) was formulated.

These procedures may well be a 'frustrating fact of life' at Cambridge, and it is perfectly possible that VCs have had to suffer through them for centuries. But then why did Toope ignore them completely?

Next the loyal Toopians (or Toopites) claim that my suggestion that Toope wants to limit free speech at Cambridge is 'absurd'. And they add that: 

'The campaign website was taken down as soon as the mistakes were spotted, and the policy and procedures are now subject to further democratic scrutiny’. 

This is completely ill-informed, and rather surprising from academics of such distinction. For their edification, here is the timeline: 

Cambridge's campaign website went live on 17 May. The first Telegraph report on micro-aggressions material was published on 20 May. Yet the Vice Chancellor’s senior official overseeing the campaign (Pro Vice Chancellor Eilis Ferran) defended the campaign website in its entirety and in its original form in a letter to the Telegraph which was published on 24 May.

It was only after this defence that a part of the website was taken down. So Ferran, on Toope's behalf (that's what the 'pro' bit is for), should have known about the disgraceful material because it was what she was responding to in her letter. 

The website to encourage snitches and informers in Cambridge University then went back up on 27 May.

Only after that was the entire campaign website taken down – on 7 June, three weeks after it went live, and two weeks after concerns were expressed in public. All this for a campaign that had been in the works for more than two years. Was that not time enough for proper scrutiny by all the relevant university bodies?

A further claim of the Toopians did make me laugh. They say: 

'Professor Toope is an eminent international lawyer and experienced university leader’. 

Of course 'eminent' and 'experienced' are terms much open to eye-of-the-beholder-ism. But if Toope is so very eminent and experienced, why has he demonstrated such monumental incompetence, not least in the most basic tools of university governance? 

Toope permitted the ridiculous materials to be published. Toope failed to respect the democratic mechanisms of Cambridge by ignoring the need for approval from Regent House, the General Board, and the Council. And so, Toope has not only attempted to impose woke and other anti-free speech ideologies on Cambridge University, but he has done so via successive acts of extraordinary incompetence. Where exactly is the experience or eminence on display here?

It goes on. For if Toope is such a very great lawyer, why did he permit what could amount to unlawful changes to the disciplinary regime for all students and staff at the university? 

Perhaps the eminent Canadian is simply ignorant of the fact that, for a full week, the university he presides over defined racism in a way that a court might have ruled, not just as unlawful, but as actually, in itself, an act of systemic discrimination against white students and staff on the basis of skin colour. 

The definition of racism with which the Cambridge 'Report + Support' begins says that 

‘Racism...is a system of advantage that sets whiteness as the norm’. 

This definition – by suggesting that racism is a white phenomenon – would surely have fallen foul of section nine of the Equality Act, which Toope could have realised by reading the act. But perhaps it is too much to ask for him to have done so.

The Toope-ites claim that Toope himself 'is committed to championing freedom of expression…As a leader, he commands respect from across the university and as senior academics we offer him our unwavering support.’

But that just reads like the effusions of a few sycophants. If Toope commands such respect and is such a champion of free speech, why did he lose three major votes on his statement on freedom of speech last year? And by some of the biggest margins recorded at Regent House since the Second World War.

Finally, the Toopians claim that defending free expression and being a welcoming place to people from all over the world are 'complementary, not incompatible' aims. 

But putting aside for a moment why these dons think Cambridge was ever such an un-welcoming place, their assertion is clearly flat-out wrong. There plainly are contradictions between the two aims and it is stupid to suggest otherwise. 

In talking of making a 'welcome environment' and much more, the Toope-ians keep treading on the right to free speech of all members of the university. Only last month, they proposed measures that could regulate the facial movements of Cambridge professors and effectively forbid any challenge of anyone speaking if they are from a particular minority group. 

Say that men can't become women and you would absolutely discover the tension that the Toopians claim does not exist. The realm of academia really ought to be able to understand a contradiction such as this.

Anyway, it is worth pointing out how inept the Toope-ites are. Perhaps Toope is glad to have finally found a handful of dons willing to stick up for him. But it is a worthy defence of him, because it is as poor as anything he might have written himself.

If this is the best the case for the defence can do, then Toope is, at some point soon, going to be toast. Rarely has the top brass of any major university been in such total and utter disarray, where every time an academic is sent out to defend their Vice Chancellor they demonstrate, in turn, equal levels of Toope-ian incompetence.

Perhaps it won't last much longer. And I hope that alumni are still withholding their donations for as long as Toope is in charge. 

It would be good if this crown jewel of an institution could once again be run by competent adults, who know about academic freedom, and know how to protect it.

Update:

Mr Jonathan Coad, a PR professional and media lawyer who specialises in crisis PR experience protecting top brand and corporate reputations, has been in touch on behalf of Professor Toope. He wishes to make it clear that while Professor Toope accepts that as Vice-Chancellor he must take ultimate responsibility for the decisions of others within the organisation, he in fact personally played no part at all in any decision involving the Report + Support tool or the guidance. We have updated the copy to reflect this.