The Kate Pretty Lecture - Professor Stephen J Toope

By Laura Kenworthy 4min read

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope, delivered the fifth annual Kate Pretty Lecture last night, in Homerton's Great Hall and to an international online audience. The lecture honours former Principal Dr Kate Pretty, who was in attendance, and who Professor Toope quoted with some emotion in a reference to "the centuries old process: the transference of wonder into knowledge - and knowledge into wonder."

The Principal introduced the Vice-Chancellor with gratitude for the welcome he had shown him last autumn, when Lord Woolley took up his post at Homerton, saying "he made me feel I belonged."

In what is likely to be his final formal speaking engagement before he steps down at the end of the summer, Professor Toope addressed the subject "University Matters? The University of Cambridge in an increasingly complex world". He emphasised the University's focus on an international outlook, expanding inclusivity and as a beacon for excellence, values which resonate strongly with Homerton's own.

Professor Toope explored the tumultuous global changes which have taken place in the five years since he took office, acknowledging that: "We are still reeling, collectively, from what I would characterise as truly paradigm-shifting events, the full consequences of which we have yet to understand." 

Against that backdrop, he interrogated what he termed "three other areas of profound and accelerated change over the past five years": public expectations of universities; the international landscape post-Brexit; and the surrounding culture. 

Unpacking the increasing tendency for universities to be expected to deliver 'value for money', Professor Toope said: 

"Of course students and their families care deeply about post-graduation prospects and opportunities, and it is right that we offer quality education. But a university education is not a transaction. A university education should be about preparing students for careers, and for contributing to society.  A university education should be about students' engagement with established knowledge and with new ideas. A university education should be an enlarging and enriching experience, an opening of eyes and minds to the world's complexity, to the world's beauty, and even to the world's horrors."

Reflecting on Cambridge's global outlook, and the impact of Brexit on Britain's participation in international research, the Vice-Chancellor said: 

"A time of global challenges is not the time to retreat into national pockets of academia. Instead, our universities should be doing what we do best - seeking solutions to vexing problems by working with partners around the globe."

Professor Toope also examined the effect of what he described as the "explosive" combination of the growth of identity politics in parallel with the advance of social media

"What we have witnessed is the emergence of extremism of all stripes. And it has tainted public discourse, which is increasingly intemperate, and intolerant of others. As communities, we have become fragmented, fractious and frayed...

It is the job of our universities to educate minds - our own, and those of the generations of students coming through - to help us build our self-confidence and better navigate our ill-tempered times."

While Professor Toope did not shy away from the challenges and difficulties faced by Cambridge and the wider academic world over his tenure, he also stated that he was "incredibly gratified" by the achievements of the University over that period, from its response to climate change through the creation of Cambridge Zero, to the significant advances seen in widening access and participation. 

Describing himself as "an inveterate optimist...absolutely convinced that our collegiate University is a force for good in this world," the Vice-Chancellor ended by saying: 

"Our collegiate University is always a work in progress - proud of its past but honouring its future. Never perfect, but always susceptible to improvement. Never finished, but always open to evolution. Because the world never stops changing. And as the world changes, so must Cambridge."

Lord Woolley thanked Professor Toope for "such a moving lecture, given with passion and from the heart," and urged him to remain closely connected to the College and to Cambridge as he returns to Canada because "we know how much you care, and we need that valuable insight that helps guide us, as you said, in troubled times."