So farewell then, Stephen Toope. The undistinguished Canadian lawyer who has spent recent years trying to run Cambridge University into the ground has just sent an announcement to all faculty, alumni and students. In it he informs them that he has decided to step down from his position as Vice-Chancellor at the end of this academic year. The reason he gives is that he has decided to spend more time with his family.
You do not have to read between the lines to realise that Toope is leaving because his brief tenure at Cambridge has been an unmitigated disaster, a fact that has become increasingly clear. Among the highlights of his career at Cambridge have been:
- Overseeing the trashing of academic freedom. During Toope’s tenure a mob of ill-informed students succeeded in getting a junior research fellow, Noah Carl, pushed out of his position because of an uninformed campaign claiming his research was ‘racist’. Later Toope defended the humiliating treatment of Prof. Jordan Peterson, who had a non-paying fellowship withdrawn based on an equally ill-informed campaign against him.
- Next the university put forward a new set of standards to be imposed on all academics and students at the university. This included the demand that all students and staff should ‘respect’ the opinions of others. A group of sharp-eyed academics noted where this would lead and ran a campaign to change the wording to an expectation that people should ‘tolerate’ other people’s opinions. When this went to a vote last December the university voted overwhelmingly, and humiliatingly, against the proposal.
- Yet Cambridge then introduced a new initiative that would encourage students and faculty to anonymously inform on each other if they felt that they had suffered a ‘micro-aggression’. The advice published online noted that an example of a micro-aggression would be any member of the university raising an eyebrow while any member of a minority was speaking. After I and others brought some negative publicity to this, Toope claimed that the advice had not been read to him before going out, that it had gone out early or that the dog had eaten it.
- A small number of academics (namely Profs John Dennis, Tim Harper, Patrick Maxwell, Nigel Peake, Anna Philpott and Chris Young) tried to rally to Toope’s defence, arguing that these attacks on free speech were no such thing. As I wrote here in The Spectator at the time, they got nearly all of their facts wrong in the process of defending someone who had got his own idea of academic freedom wrong.
- All the while there was not a woke cause that Toope did not try to import from his native Canada. For instance, in 2019 it was announced that Toope had appointed a committee to examine the university’s historical links to the slave trade. During the height of this ahistorical pandering exercise a bell was removed from one of Cambridge’s colleges because it was suspected of having possibly once been on a plantation.
- Strangely, as The Spectator also revealed in a recent cover piece, while all this was going on Toope led Cambridge deeper and deeper into a highly compromising relationship with the authorities in China. As Ian Williams wrote in July, one of Toope’s first trips on being appointed Vice-Chancellor in 2017 was to the Chinese Embassy in London, where he posed for photographs with the Ambassador. In the months and years since then, Toope worked on deepening the university’s relations with the authoritarian Communist regime, gaining funding from them and allowing this funding to influence the direction of research at the university. Williams concluded that the relationship was at best dictated not just by greed but by naivety. It is a generous interpretation. For a Vice-Chancellor to try to crack down on academic freedom at Cambridge while sucking up to one of the most authoritarian regimes on earth is more than naïve – it is sinister.
There are many other things that could be said of Toope. But there will be time enough for that. In the meantime perhaps I could mention why this matters.
I have occasionally been asked, over the last few years, why I have written about Toope so many times, both here and at the Telegraph. The reason is not just because Toope was clearly so magnificently ill-suited to the job he has now left early. Nor was it simply that I believe he is such a prime example of one of those undistinguished functionaries who falls ever-upwards by parroting and then pushing the latest on-brand dictates of the era. The reason is that – to steal a quote from Evelyn Waugh – watching Stephen Toope in charge of Cambridge University was like watching a Sèvres vase being balanced in the hands of a chimpanzee. He seemed to show no care as he teetered and careered around with it. He seemed, as he particularly showed in his ignominious last year, to have no care of whether or not he dropped and smashed the whole damn thing.
And this is why Toope – and his fall from grace – matter. His rise seemed to demonstrate that there is only a benefit to be gained from trying to get ahead of the new authoritarianism. His fall demonstrates that there can be a cost to it as well.