The Vice- Chancellor will depart from the the role in September 2022Louis Ashworth/VARSITY

Stephen Toope announced last week that, after five years, he would retire from the role of Vice-Chancellor in September 2022, cutting his expected seven year tenure two years short. As the Vice-Chancellor prepares for his departure from the role next year, Varsity takes a look back at some of his key moments.

The COVID-19 crisis

Toope’s time in office has undoubtedly been overshadowed by the tremendous difficulty of a global pandemic, which he has cited as a contributing factor to his decision to step down. He made the difficult decision in March 2020 that students would not return to the University in person over Easter Term 2020, and that all face-to-face teaching, as well as in-person exams, would not go ahead. Similar decisions were made over the course of the last academic year. Despite criticisms from students that “academic rigour” was prioritised over the mental wellbeing of students in a period of such high anxiety, Toope has overwhelmingly referenced his leadership through the pandemic as a success: “We kept the university on track and safe during its hardest years since World War II”.

But after four years of controversies, outrage, and some successes littered in between, there has been far more to Toope’s tenure than his efforts to manage the COVID-19 crisis over the last 19 months.

Free speech rows

Characterised by the right-wing media as the “woke” Vice-Chancellor who is, contrary to his rebuttals, “stifling” free speech at the University, Toope’s decisions during his time in office haven’t always been popular in the press. In March 2019, Toope was criticised for ‘de-platforming’ Jordan Peterson — the controversial “professor against political correctness” — in a freedom of speech row, when Peterson had his visiting fellowship rescinded by the Faculty of Divinity due to accusations of Islamophobia. Many staff and students supported the move.

The rescindment of Peterson’s invitation was allowed under the University’s 2016 Freedom of Speech Statement, which outlined that students, academics and visiting speakers must “respect” each other’s opinions, and that the University reserved the right to “prohibit speaker events that might threaten the ‘welfare’ of students, staff or the general public”. Toope had backed the statement, an unpopular decision among some who saw it as a threat to free speech. The statement was later overruled by a Regents House vote in 2020, and the wording was amended to “tolerate”. The amendment won back some favour with Toope’s most prolific media critics, but was not welcomed by others, including Cambridge English Professor Priyamvda Gopal, who argued that it would give “eugenicists, racists, and transphobes a prestigious platform.”

Criticisms from the press have been so relentless throughout Toope’s tenure that some have speculated that they have contributed to his premature departure from the role of Vice-Chancellor, which Toope himself has denied.

Controversies: China

In addition to arguments over free speech, Toope has similarly faced a lot of backlash for the University’s international financial dealings, with the UAE and China alike.

Just this month The Times published claims that Chinese telecommunications company Huawei had “infiltrated” the Cambridge Centre for Chinese Management (CCCM).

This came following the controversial publication of a white paper written by the Jesus College’s UK-China Global Issues Dialogue Centre (UKCC) in 2020 in conjunction with Huawei, which raised eyebrows after it was revealed that the UKCC had received sizeable donations from Huawei.

While the postscript of the report claims that all conclusions in the report were reached on the basis of “academic freedom”, this led to concerns that such freedoms at the University had been compromised. The UKCC’s report contains a foreword from Professor Toope, wherein he describes that he was “especially pleased to acknowledge this initiative” as the “the University of Cambridge has had a long and proud tradition of engaging with China.”

At the time, Jesus College stressed that “there is a clause enshrining academic freedom and free speech written into the research collaboration agreement.”

Controversies: proposed collaborative initiative with the United Arab Emirates

In July 2021, Varsity broke the news that the University was in negotiations for a 10 year £400 million collaborative initiative with “several educational, governmental, and corporate partners in the United Arab Emirates”, with £312m of contributions coming from the UAE directly.

It was expected that Vice-Chancellor Toope would meet with the Crown Prince of the UAE in June, but it remains unclear whether this took place. The University stated they will be “reflecting over the next few months” before any decisions are made on the collaboration.

The proposed deal sparked controversy due to concerns about LGBTQ+ rights, freedom of expression and women’s rights in the UAE, as well as its record of “human rights abuses”.


Mountain View

Professor Stephen Toope to complete his term as Vice-Chancellor in 2022 after ‘upheaval of Covid’

The documents acknowledge the “values gap” as well as the burden the collaboration could place on “academic freedom” at the University, but described it nonetheless as an “exciting and unique opportunity.”


Despite several controversies, Toope has had some commendable achievements during his time as Vice-Chancellor.

Professor Toope established the Advisory Group on Legacies of Enslavement in early 2019; this aimed to commission research into the University’s involvement in, or links to, the Atlantic slave trade, and “other historical forms of coerced labour”.

The group advises the Vice-Chancellor in the appropriate action to be taken in light of its findings; the group’s final report is expected to be published in 2022.

Toope has also established a Foundation Year scheme for disadvantaged students along with the Cambridge Student Support Initiative, with three core aims: offering financial support to students, establishing postgraduate scholarships and promoting student mental health and wellbeing.

In October 2020, Toope announced that the University would fully divest its £3.5 billion endowment fund from fossil companies by 2030, after years of student campaigning. He also committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2038.

Despite Toope celebrating the University’s divestment plan as one of his biggest achievements, the decision has proved unpopular with some: XR Cambridge stated that this decision would allow for “10 more years of ecocide and fossil fuel investment”.


It is clear that Professor Toope has both fans and naysayers among students, staff, and the press alike. His decisions, deals and policies — sometimes controversial — have undoubtedly had a large impact on the University and its reputation over the last four years.

The Vice-Chancellor is expected to make his annual address to the University today (1/10).

Varsity has contacted the Vice-Chancellor and the Cambridge Student Union for comment.