The direction of our University: a second open meeting with VC Toope

Caithlin Ng 15 May 2018

The second open meeting with the Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope that took place today, May 15, focused on three main issues – the ethical responsibility of the University, racial justice, and internal democracy.  Drinking societies were of course not entirely absent from the discussion.

Toope began by addressing the issue of the University’s accountability, and on the topic of investment transparency, admitted: “I cannot answer the question today about whether we have any investments specifically in fossil fuel companies”.

He added that this was because there are transactions that occur within these companies which the University has no control over, although he was hoping that the University would soon be able to have “better oversight over the transactions taking place”.

When questioned about the partnership between the Engineering Department and UK Arms Trade, Toope stated that although there is one contract between BAE systems and the University, it was not a contract to do with the development of weapons. He reiterated, after his statement drew a laugh from the audience, that it is a contract related to BAE’s business model instead.

On the matter of divestment, Toope assured that “there is a lot of work being done” by the University to think about “where Cambridge can make the biggest difference”. The Council has made decisions to create greater transparency, including training council members. He nevertheless acknowledged that the matter requires “complex evaluation” and that the University team working on it would have to balance interests and purposes.

He asserted crucially, however, that he could not say whether he personally supports divestment because of a confidentiality agreement with the University Council.

Toope had previously promised to open dialogues with students and the government about the marketization of the University, and reiterated today: “I certainly want to continue working with CUSU and the Graduate Union on these issues.” He added that he had already raised this topic with the Russell Group president, and that he wanted to “try to recapture a narrative about social values in higher education that is not simply about economic growth”.

One of the questions raised by an audience member was about whether the University accepts responsibility for Cambridge being voted the most unequal city for the second year in the row. Toope remarked that this was definitely within his reach of responsibility and committed to trying to keep housing prices down as much as possible.

The discussion then moved on to the topic of race, with Toope emphasising the need for the University to have a concrete series of policies dealing with intersectionality before releasing a statement or giving a comment in person.

On the importance of the University having more BME staff members, he asserted that he did not have the resources to appoint roles himself – that was the responsibility of specific schools and faculties. He nevertheless said that what could be done was a change in the budget model, and that he hoped to have some conversations with faculty and department heads.

One of the most tangible actions the “centre” of the University could do, he noted, was asking “harder and harder questions about applicant pools”.

In response to the decolonise movement, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education Graham Virgo then added that although it addressed an important issue, his issue with the movement was that it implied intersectionality was a matter that applied only to specific degrees. The University needed to be inclusive as a whole, and all faculty members – not just those who are BME – should be engaging with the discussion.

The topic of Prevent was also raised by the audience, with Toope stating that it was the responsibility of the University to stand up for any attacked members. He added that there was appropriate training to counter this issue has been taking place, and that he would work to have the University’s response be quicker.

Another student questioned the current state of the University's mental health services, particularly the counselling service’s resistance to allowing students to seek BME counsellors.  Virgo assured that this option was now possible, and that the University had just employed three new counsellors – although not necessarily BME – to “ensure that counselling services across the board are appropriate”.

On the penultimate broad topic of discussion, internal democracy, Toope added that there was already an impressive level of student engagement, but that he wanted to use more “informal structures” to drive change. This, he said, was a more productive way than thinking about how formal governmental structures can be changed. “Conversations can become derailed,” he argued, and that more productive dialogues should be opened elsewhere.

At the conclusion of the meeting, drinking societies were raised by an audience member.  Toope and Virgo expressed their sentiment against societies whose central purpose is to drink and who tend to cause such damage as has recently been exposed.  Banning them is not out the question but there is a fear that they would go underground.  Virgo focused on dealing with the "underlying behaviour" behind them and deal with why students are coming together to such ill effect.

For for more information check our Twitter feed where we live tweeted the entire evening.