Cambridge vice-chancellor at centre of free speech row to step down

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Prof Stephen Toope - YouTube
Prof Stephen Toope - YouTube

The Cambridge vice-chancellor who was at centre of a free speech row has resigned, saying the Covid pandemic had made him reassess being far away from his family.

Prof Stephen Toope will step down at the end of September next year after five years in office.

It comes after a number of free speech controversies and just months after the university took down a website which said dons could be reported for "raising an eyebrow" at students.

Prof Toope, a Canadian lawyer earning £365,000 a year in the post, said: "The upheaval of Covid has led me to reassess my own years ahead from a personal perspective.

"As an expat living far from home, being separated from my children and grandchildren by closed borders has been hard. Being near my own family and friends is more important than ever."

Prof Toope said he was "proud" of Cambridge's delivery of education and research during the pandemic, adding: "We kept the university on track and safe during its hardest years since World War Two." He said he was "fully committed" to continuing the "important work" over the course of the next year.

He found himself embroiled in the culture wars engulfing British universities in December, when Cambridge came under fire for a free speech policy that proposed requiring staff and students to be "respectful" of differing views.

After an intervention, the university's governing body voted to revise the wording in the freedom of speech guidelines from "respect" to "tolerate" following concerns from academics and alumni, including the actor Stephen Fry.

Opponents of Cambridge's original draft statement warned that calling for respect for opposing views could undermine academic freedom at the university and stifle views.

In May, Prof Toope faced a revolt over the university's "change the culture" scheme, a website for logging the inappropriate behaviour of students or staff which included a list of "micro-aggressions" such as raising an eyebrow, giving backhanded compliments and referring to a woman as a girl.

The website was removed after it was revealed by The Telegraph, and Prof Toope wrote to the university's entire staff to explain that it had been published "prematurely and without full scrutiny".

The controversies led some insiders to question whether he was a strong enough leader, but the heads of the university's six academic schools rallied behind him, describing the suggestion that he wanted to limit free speech as "absurd".

The process to recruit a new vice-chancellor will begin shortly. The previous four have served terms of seven years, which it is understood was an option available to Prof Toope.

Mark Lewisohn, deputy chairman of the University Council, said Prof Toope had had a "profound impact" on the university as vice-chancellor, adding: "Under his leadership, the university has become more transparent and more robust in its processes and has launched several new and exciting research and teaching initiatives.

"Stephen's focus on sustainability, which has led to the creation of Cambridge Zero, will be an important part of his legacy, as will his efforts to make Cambridge more accessible to students from all backgrounds."

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