Ready to make history
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.
Stephen Toope talks about academic life as ‘unbelievably privileged.’