Cambridge University looks to Montreal's Stephen Toope for 'new ideas' as vice-chancellor

The legal scholar and human rights defender partially credits Brexit—the referendum last June that saw Britons vote to leave the European Union—for the decision to appoint him as the first non-Briton to lead the 807-year-old institution.

Legal scholar will be first non-Briton to lead Cambridge when he takes the helm in October

Toope, 58, will remain director of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs until he assumes his duties at Cambridge.

Montrealer Stephen Toope has held some big positions over the course of his remarkable career, but taking over as vice-chancellor of the United Kingdom's Cambridge University in October is one even he admits is slightly intimidating.

"I'm excited, and a little bit daunted," he told CBC. "It's a big job and it's a complicated time in Europe and for the United Kingdom, so it should be fascinating." 

Toope, 58, stepped down as president of the University of British Columbia in 2014 after eight years and was a year or so into his new role as director of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs when a headhunter contacted him out of the blue about leading Cambridge.

"I didn't even know they were looking," said Toope, who received his PhD from Cambridge in 1987.

The legal scholar and human rights expert partially credits Brexit—the referendum last June that saw Britons vote to leave the European Union—for the decision to appoint him as the first non-Briton to lead the 807-year-old institution.

"I think they were very open to someone from outside the United Kingdom, partly because of the Brexit phenomenon, and their wanting to continue to send messages of openness," he said. 
Pro-Brexit demonstrators protest outside the Houses of Parliament on November 23, 2016 in London. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

"The university leadership with whom I spoke… felt that there was a particular role for Cambridge to play — because it is a global institution — to be a kind of beacon of inclusion and openness even at a time when there may be forces that are driving in a different direction."

As the single largest recipient of European Research Council grants, there is real concern for what the Brexit vote will mean for the future of Cambridge—one Toope is now tasked with helping chart.

At the same time, last year marked the first time that the university did not place in the top three in the 12-year-old QS World University Rankings, which put Cambridge fourth behind Harvard, Stanford and the top-ranked Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Toope said such rankings "must be taken with a grain of salt," but did not dismiss their findings altogether.

"It means Cambridge has to look at itself and see whether it's doing as good a job as it can. It's still one of the very top universities in the world and it would obviously like to be consistently ranked in the top three," he said.

Looking for fresh perspectives

With plans already on the books for billions of pounds worth of new investments at Cambridge over the next two decades, the task of raising the funds will now fall partly to Toope. 
A damp morning in Cambridge, England. (Getty Images/Moment RF)

During his tenure at UBC, he spearheaded a $1.5 billion fundraising campaign that went on to surpass its goal. Toope suggested the experience he gained leading UBC is another factor that led to his appointment by Cambridge.

"I think they were looking for new ideas, if I may put it that way, and North America has tended to be a little more innovative in terms of university evolution than much of Europe over the last 50 years. So they may just be looking for fresh perspectives… They seemed to genuinely be interested in some things being done in new ways."

That realization helped Toope overcome early doubts that more old school elements at Cambridge might frown upon a candidate for vice-chancellor hailing from one of Britain's former colonies.

"Quite frankly, I was waiting for some snotty remark to be made and there wasn't a single one," he said.

The fact that Cambridge is more than 800 years old and steeped in traditions almost as old doesn't mean it's averse to modernization and change, Toope said.

"It's always a balance between retaining tradition, retaining our fundamental commitments to teaching, learning and groundbreaking research, and understanding that we have to rethink the way the delivery mechanisms operate, probably to some extent in each generation," he said.

Laying the groundwork in law

Helping smooth his way as a university administrator is Toope's background in law and human rights. Among other positions, Toope was the dean of law at McGill University from 1994 to 1999 and once served as the chair of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

"The idea that language matters and that both in terms of writing and speaking you can actually use language in ways that can encourage and even create a sense of shared purpose, that comes from law. I think in my case it has been helpful," he said.

Human rights, meanwhile, have taught Toope that ruling by decree gets you nowhere.

"You really have to bring a lot of people along to accomplish change, and I think human rights is about understanding that individuals matter and that communities matter and you don't shape change by trying to impose solutions. It never works," he said.

Montreal will always be home

Such views are rooted in his time at McGill, and his upbringing in Montreal — a city that he says will always be his home.

"Having to always navigate the question of biculturalism and bilingualism in a much more multicultural setting and in a setting where we're finally recognizing the role of indigenous people—I think that all of those things together always make Montreal an exciting place and a place where you can really learn how to negotiate difference, if I may put it that way," he said.

"It's something that I've drawn on for my whole life. There's no doubt about it."