Stephen Toope's term as Vice-Chancellor is expected to end in SeptemberLOUIS ASHWORTH/VARSITY

There are, or there seem to be, at least two Stephen Toopes. The first Toope I ever encountered was the Toope of Camfess – a cheery, avuncular character, toothy and bespectacled like Simon from Alvin and the Chipmunks, and endowed, to our tickled delight, with an easily punnable name. Everyone in Cambridge has their favourite Toope meme – even, apparently, Graham Virgo.

But then there is the other Toope, the Mr Hyde-Toope, the Emmanuel Goldstein of the Telegraph and the Spectator. “Cambridge deserves better than Stephen Toope”, writes Douglas Murray, who undertook a victory lap a few months ago upon hearing of his bête noire’s early departure. Murray charges Toope with “overseeing the trashing of academic freedom”: his tenure, he asserts, has been an “unmitigated disaster”.

Murray has a point: Toope’s record on free speech leaves much to be desired. Almost ninety per cent of University academics voted to amend the flawed free speech policy that he drafted and imposed upon the University. Toope seemed to recognise his folly when, following the resounding landslide, he awkwardly applauded the rejection of his own proposal as an “emphatic reaffirmation of free speech in our university”.

A few months later, however, it appears that he tried to push similar schemes via a back door. Plans detailing his “Change the Culture” initiative were prematurely and accidentally made public: they envisaged the establishment of a pervasive snitching culture, where something as banal as a “raised eyebrow” could be anonymously reported to higher-ups as a “microaggression”. Toope then backpedalled even quicker than when he stormed away from student activists last week.

“Free speech” has been culture-warified, so his unsuccessful attempts to restrict it have naturally won him some support. When the Times reported that everyone in Cambridge was “delighted” by news of Toope’s early exit, 300 academics wrote an open letter in response, affirming that “Stephen Toope is a popular and respected VC at Cambridge”. It is “entirely wrong”, they asserted, for the Vice-Chancellor to be “pilloried by the anti-woke brigade, who are being goaded, as on Capitol Hill, by divisive and inflammatory sloganeering about a so-called ‘culture war’”.

I wonder if all those individuals, incensed by the latest round of UCU grievances, would bother to rush to his defence today. They have, after all, spent the past few years striking in opposition to University governance – and he is University governance. They like him when he’s a victim of “so-called ‘culture wars’” (or, perhaps more accurately, waging theirs); and they hate him when he’s docking their pay.

“My Grand Unified Theory of Toope is that he is a fundamentally supine man”

But all this seems trivial next to Toope’s most egregious sins, as reported by TCS. Back in 2019, he gave a speech at Peking University. There he exuberantly recited, verbatim, the fourth of the fourteen tenets of Xi Jinping Thought, applauded the Belt and Road Initiative, and expressed a shocking naivety about the nature of Chinese education.

“At a time when many minds appear to be closing all around the world”, he began – one wonders whether he was referring to Brexit or Trump – “it is reassuring to find here a formidable institution which seeks an open world: open to ideas, open to the exchange of goods and people – a world in which no people, great or small, will live in angry isolation”. A few months earlier, Peking University – the subject of his encomium – shut down the Marxist club, and the secret police abducted its chairman. Qiu Zhanxuan’s detainers might have had their consciences eased when the Vice-Chancellor of the world’s greatest university – and a human rights lawyer, no less! – popped over to praise Peking University as a “formidable institution”; “open to ideas”, perhaps, but only the small bunch which have obtained the approval of the Chinese Communist Party.

Naturally, not a word in Toope’s speech touches on China’s abysmal human rights record. Last year’s leak revealed that he buys into the voguish definition of racism as a “system of advantage that sets Whiteness as the norm”. Perhaps this is what enables him to turn a blind eye to the racist treatment inflicted on Uyghur Muslims by the Chinese government (which is largely comprised of people of colour).

“The last few years can’t have been easy for him, and he deserves a restful retirement”

My Grand Unified Theory of Toope is that he is a fundamentally supine man. As Vice-Chancellor he was too willing to bow down to pressure. This explains both his eagerness to get into bed with the CCP and his habitual kowtowing to disproportionately loud voices on culture war issues. The upside of this ineffectual demeanour is that, when he makes bad decisions (as is often), he tends to U-Turn on them. Earlier this year, he attempted to broker a £400 million deal with yet another despotic regime, the UAE, until – by now you know the routine – the circumstances compelled him to backtrack. Perhaps the memeability of Toope, his Camfess cuddliness, is just a positive spin on the scent of weakness. Oppressive autocrats, like much of the student body, seem to perceive him as little more than a besuited chipmunk.


Mountain View

The SU needs a shake-up

Rumour has it that Toope’s next job will be at Quebec’s McGill University. I hope he will be happy there, swanning off with the Laurentian élite. The last few years can’t have been easy for him, and he deserves a restful retirement. To be VC of a major university, least of all in the COVID era, is an unenviable job, as any appraisal of Toope’s tenure must recognise.

But this cannot excuse his failures. This cannot excuse his inability to resist the cultural pressures to restrict free speech, or the financial pressures to reel in cash from China and the UAE. Perhaps President Xi and the Emirati sheikhs will shed a tear to see him go. It is my belief that few in Cambridge will. We can only hope that his replacement will be made of stronger stuff.