Ready to make his­tory

The Globe and Mail (Atlantic Edition) - - NEWS - SARAH HAMPSON

Next month, a Cana­dian aca­demic jour­ney­man will as­sume his role as the first non-Bri­tish leader of the Univer­sity of Cambridge

Stephen Toope ar­rives at a Toronto café on a late sum­mer day dressed in a blue golf shirt, ca­sual pants and car­ry­ing a brief­case. He set­tles into a seat at a table and presents him­self in a man­ner that sug­gests Mr. Dres­sup: kindly, earnest and a bit nerdy in his round glasses; the sort of man one can eas­ily imag­ine wear­ing a bow tie.

Next month, he of­fi­cially takes up his post as the first non-Bri­tish leader of the Univer­sity of Cambridge at a time when the ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tion is fac­ing con­sid­er­able chal­lenges posed by the coun­try’s de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union. In fact, the Brexit ref­er­en­dum in 2016 hap­pened in the mid­dle of the in­ter­view process for the job. The new po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity adds con­sid­er­able chal­lenges to the kind of ad­min­is­tra­tive role he once sug­gested he would not want again.

In 2013, when he stepped down as pres­i­dent and vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Bri­tish Columbia, he de­scribed ad­min­is­tra­tive re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as “re­lent­less,” say­ing he wanted to fo­cus more on ar­eas of pro­fes­sional and aca­demic in­ter­ests such as hu­man rights and in­ter­na­tional law. The next year, he be­came di­rec­tor of the Munk School of Global Af­fairs at the Univer­sity of Toronto, a place he says he loved be­cause of its mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary aca­demic ap­proach and the op­por­tu­nity he had to “have my voice back” on in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions.

Still, noth­ing seems out of the ques­tion for Mr. Toope, who left the Munk School to take up the job at Cambridge af­ter three years of a five-year con­tract. He’s at the top of his game at 59, a lead­ing aca­demic leader and thinker who is in high de­mand. Head­hunters seem to have him on their speed dials.

“I wouldn’t have con­sid­ered an­other Cana­dian univer­sity and I think I can say with real sin­cer­ity that there is al­most no other job I would have con­sid­ered as a chan­cel­lor or pres­i­dent. Even the great Amer­i­can schools would not have had the same ca­chet,” he says, ex­plain­ing that “right now I find the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal cli­mate ex­traor­di­nar­ily unattrac­tive.” He will ad­mit only that “I have been ap­proached by a cou­ple of [Amer­i­can] in­sti­tu­tions his­tor­i­cally. I won’t say who.”

When the Cambridge job came up through a head­hunter “in all se­ri­ous­ness, my heart sank a lit­tle bit be­cause I did think, ‘Oh gosh, how can I say I am not in­ter­ested in this job? It is a won­der­ful, won­der­ful univer­sity.’ ” Mr. Toope earned a doc­tor­ate from Cambridge in 1987 fol­low­ing two law de­grees from McGill Univer­sity and an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree from Har­vard Univer­sity.

There’s a bit of the gosh and golly about Mr. Toope, who talks of the aca­demic life as “un­be­liev­ably priv­i­leged” and of­fers sen­tences that are as sen­si­ble and com­fort­ing as toast. It is not sur­pris­ing the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Pierre El­liott Trudeau Foun­da­tion, an in­de­pen­dent, non-par­ti­san char­i­ta­ble or­gan­za­tion, has been asked sev­eral times to run for the Lib­er­als at the fed­eral level.

“It is a com­pli­cated time in the U.K., po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally,” he ac­knowl­edges, “but what I can say is that Cambridge is 800 years old and has lived through the Glo­ri­ous Rev­o­lu­tion [of 16881689]; it has lived through World Wars; lots of chal­lenges; and I am sure we will man­age to make its way for­ward on this set of chal­lenges.”

Among chal­lenges such as in­creased bar­ri­ers to re­cruit­ing tal­ented EU staff and re­duced Euro­pean mo­bil­ity for fac­ulty and stu­dents, the Univer­sity of Cambridge faces po­ten­tial fund­ing is­sues. In a wob­bly econ­omy, gov­ern­ment cof­fers may dwin­dle and there’s un­cer­tainty about the fu­ture of Euro­pean re­search grants, which to­tal roughly €50mil­lion ($72.8-mil­lion).

But that doesn’t seem to cloud his chirpy de­meanour. All univer­si­ties face fund­ing is­sues for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons, he points out. Be­sides, his suc­cess­ful fundrais­ing cam­paign at UBC, which sur­passed its $1.5-bil­lion goal, was “an in­ter­est­ing in­tel­lec­tual pur­suit,” he ex­plains, as en­thu­si­as­ti­cally as a first-year un­der­grad­u­ate. “You’re not sell­ing your­self and you’re not sell­ing the in­sti­tu­tion. You’re not sell­ing at all. You’re hop­ing to con­nect some­one’s de­sire to make a dif­fer­ence in the world with work that’s be­ing done in that univer­sity that can ac­tu­ally ac­com­plish that.”

Part of his en­joy­ment in his work comes from be­ing a prag­ma­tist, he says. His par­tic­i­pa­tion with the UN Work­ing Group on En­forced or In­vol­un­tary Dis­ap­pear­ances was mean­ing­ful be­cause, “it is lit­er­ally try­ing to find dis­ap­peared peo­ple by ne­go­ti­at­ing with govern­ments.” That stint, from 2002 to 2007, led to an in­vi­ta­tion to be in­de­pen­dent fact finder for the fed­eral O’Con­nor In­quiry into the tor­ture in Syria of Cana­dian Ma­her Arar – a re­al­world chance to ex­am­ine the lofty ideal of truth.

He in­ter­viewed Mr. Arar and others to cor­rob­o­rate his tes­ti­mony. “And I came to the very firm de­ci­sion that he was telling the truth,” Mr. Toope says un­equiv­o­cally.

His new job at Cambridge comes with an an­nual salary of £335,000 (about $550,000) as well as ac­com­mo­da­tion in a £4.5-mil­lion house there. He and his wife, Paula Rosen, a speech pathol­o­gist, have sold their house in Toronto’s An­nex neigh­bour­hood and are plan­ning to buy one in Lon­don. Their three chil­dren are grown up, so it’s an empty-nester ad­ven­ture of sorts.

Asked about why he thinks Cambridge Univer­sity chose him, he says, “There seems to be a lit­tle bit of a sense that af­ter Brexit it might be a good thing to ap­point some­one who would be, in a sense, em­blem­atic of not lit­tle Eng­land or a nar­row­ing of the view­point, but a re-com­mit­ment to a broad per­spec­tive.”

Did he en­counter any Bri­tish snob­bery about a leader from “the colonies”? “Not a scin­tilla, even though I some­what ex­pected to.” And does he feel any re­gret over stepping away from dis­cussing Canada’s role amidst world­wide po­lit­i­cal up­heaval and un­cer­tainty? “Yes, I am some­what sad be­cause I think it is a re­mark­able time for Canada,” he of­fers. But then, in the next sen­tence, he does his lawyerly thing by ex­press­ing an al­ter­nate side of an ar­gu­ment.“But Cambridge is a global in­sti­tu­tion and I think that helps me feel that I am not aban­don­ing the Cana­dian dy­namic.”

He walks thought­fully through the world in his con­ser­va­tive shoes, pro­cess­ing ev­ery­thing, one care­ful foot­step af­ter the other. The con­tem­po­rary dis­sat­is­fac­tion with re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal en­ti­ties makes univer­si­ties “more im­por­tant than they have ever been be­cause they’re one of the re­main­ing sta­bi­liz­ing in­sti­tu­tional forces in so­ci­ety,” he muses at one point.

He is both fa­therly and pro­fes­so­rial, like a dad at a fam­ily din­ner table who wants to know what you think and is happy to offer his two cents.

His ap­proach­a­bil­ity makes it eas­ier to­ward the end of the in­ter­view to ask if he would mind talk­ing about the har­row­ing per­sonal tragedy in 1997 when both of his par­ents were mur­dered by three youths dur­ing a break-in to their Mon­treal home.

“Not at all,” he says kindly, lean­ing for­ward a bit, his hands on the table, as he waits po­litely to be served the ques­tions.

“It was hor­ri­ble at the time,” he replies. “But I re­ally felt strongly that I didn’t want my par­ents’ lives to be de­fined by what hap­pened to them.” His fa­ther was an Angli­can min­is­ter; his mother, a house­wife. Both Mr. Toope and his only sib­ling, a younger sis­ter, were adopted. “They made great con­tri­bu­tions to small com­mu­ni­ties and churches where they had been over the years. They were very kind and de­cent peo­ple, and I wanted that to be what was re­mem­bered.”

He was dean of McGill Law School at the time and pur­pose­fully re­frained from mak­ing any public state­ments about the mur­ders. “I felt it would be an abuse of the po­si­tion,” he states flatly. He also didn’t want to por­tray him­self as a vic­tim. “I didn’t want my par­ents’ mur­der to de­fine me.”

Even then, in his 30s, his un­flap­pable ra­tio­nal­ity pre­vailed. The sense­less mur­ders “didn’t change my world­view,” he in­sists af­ter I won­der how they could not have. “I am ba­si­cally a very op­ti­mistic per­son. I do think there are peo­ple and ac­tiv­i­ties that end up be­ing fairly de­scribed as evil. [But] if you think there can be things that can be evil, that doesn’t mean that it is eas­ily de­fined or ev­ery­where.”

A calm sen­tence for the ages, that last one, per­fect for a trou­bling world.

DAR­RYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Stephen Toope talks about aca­demic life as ‘un­be­liev­ably priv­i­leged.’

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