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Vice-Chancellor's Office

 

Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) seminar, Cambridge

6 March 2019

 

Thank you all for inviting me to one of your seminar sessions. The subject is 'A university’s role in fostering social change', so I’ll begin with a quote: 

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.

"We are the ones we've been waiting for.

"We are the change that we seek."

Not my words, but those of former United States President, Barack Obama.

A man whose very elevation to that role was, in itself, indicative of great social change.

When I undertook my undergraduate studies at Harvard in the late seventies, none of us would have believed that within our lifetimes, a black man would become leader of the so-called Free World.

It was less than 20 years since Rosa Parks took her seat on a segregated bus.

It was less than 10 years since Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis.

Change can happen – and sometimes it can happen very quickly.

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Who leads that change?

Barack Obama gave us the answer: we do.

But who, you ask, is the “we”?

All of us, really.

But tonight I’ll concentrate on what an institution like ours can achieve to promote social change, and share some thoughts on how it might go about it.

I have the privilege – and the sometimes daunting responsibility – of leading this University.

It’s not the first institution I’ve led, so I have had some time to consider the powerful influence of universities on society.

Universities are among the few institutions to have survived, both intact and wildly changed, since the medieval era.

For centuries, universities have proven crucial to social, economic, and cultural evolution.

Cambridge, of course, is one of the oldest in the world.

And it was started by a group of breakaways rebelling against authority.

In fact, universities have throughout history been dynamic catalysts for change.

When we think of the great social change of the 20th century: feminism, civil rights, the anti-war movement… so much sprang from universities – and especially from students.

In 1968, protests in France escalated into worldwide student action, including the Prague Spring and the Red Square demonstration.

Why would protests emerge from universities?

You might say it is because students have plenty of time to protest.

But it’s also because universities are places where we give ourselves time to think – places where we ponder what is wrong in our world and how to make it better.

Universities are places where we come together from diverse backgrounds, where we read widely, where we talk, and where the talk sparks ideas.

Sometimes acting on those ideas has seemed the only way forward.

Often it means challenging the policies of universities themselves. We see that right here, in the divestment debate.

But it also means fighting against wider social inequality or inaction.

It is no accident that university campuses are often the first places to be shut down by autocrats.

And it isn’t only because of staff and students building barricades and leading protests.

It’s because of ideas – the power of ideas.

Ideas challenge those who would want the prevailing paradigms to remain in place.

The ideas that have emanated from universities have challenged religion, power, and politics.

Ideas challenge the status quo.

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Crucially, universities are places where we not only have ideas – we test them.

Sometimes we find them to lack the strength we thought they had.

But sometimes we find that they are more potent than we could ever imagine.

When Einstein pioneered his work on lasers, could he have imagined that they would one day be used to perform life-saving keyhole surgery?

When scientists built the first computer, filling an entire room, did they anticipate that we would one day carry something far more powerful in our pockets?

Scientific discoveries of this sort have led to extraordinary technological innovations, which in turn have fuelled social change.

But it is not only technological innovations that transform societies.

Think about those radical ideas incubated in the safety of a university common room or lecture hall or library.

Those ideas emanating from a university’s greatest assets – our talented men and women – our scholars and students.

People like Cambridge’s Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon who dreamed of university education and votes for women.

Could they have imagined that one day women would not only be awarded degrees – not only enter politics – but lead nations?

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Of course, Cambridge has not always been at the forefront of social change.

It is true that leaders of the suffragette and women’s movement came from Cambridge.

But it is also true that our institution was one of the last western universities to admit women to a full degree.

Our graduates William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarke were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement – and yet still we are running to catch up on issues of equality.

We are working hard to change that.

Diversity benefits everyone, but more than that, it is right.

We at universities can do more than discuss what is right – we can demonstrate it with evidence, because that is how things change.

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We live in what I call, borrowing from WH Auden, an 'age of anxiety'.

A time when the world faces challenges of unprecedented complexity.

As the population expands to the point where the planet’s resources simply cannot cope, many regions of the world lack the basic necessities of life.

Just last year we saw Cape Town come perilously close to being the first major city in the world to run out of water.

It is far from the only place in the world with water problems – whether we are considering its availability, distribution or quality.

In other parts of the world, January saw unprecedented extreme heat in Australia, while in the United States, temperatures plummeted to levels below those in Antarctica.

Floods and droughts, fires and famines.

It can seem like the end of days.

We are seeing war, hunger and financial disaster leading to mass migration of refugees on a scale unseen since World War Two.

Mass migration follows conflict and famine, and we will undoubtedly see a rise in the number of so-called 'environmental migrants', or, more accurately perhaps, 'climate refugees', as the world’s weather patterns become increasingly unstable and the sea-levels rise.

Migrants leave their homes in fear, and those in safer places fear migrants.

Fear feeds itself, and in what becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, political extremism, religious fundamentalism and intolerance abound.

Ignorance, mistrust, and cultural isolation persist, and despite a world more connected than ever before, we are seeing it fracture.

The urgency is obvious to us all.

So the world needs critical thinking more than ever before.

The world needs institutions that will drive forward thinking and social change.

The world needs universities.

And universities must not only generate knowledge – they must seek connection, communication and collaboration.

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Speaking of collaboration –

I mentioned a while ago some of the problems around the pressure on our natural resources.

You may be aware of the research of Professor Bhaskar Vira and Dr Eszter Kovacs, exploring the changing landscapes and escalating water crises of the Indian Himalayas.

Their work spans the fields of political economy, development and environmental studies, examining the social, economic and political dimensions of managing natural resources.

It is vital research, and research best done through interdisciplinary and international collaboration.

Working together, and understanding and engaging with each other and our communities are absolutely crucial to achieving the preservation of our fragile ecologies.

And while we’re focusing on India, I was delighted to attend the launch last year of TIGR2ESS, an interdisciplinary, inter-university, international project based in India.

It’s about how to attain sustainable crop production and resource use in different regions of India, with a particular emphasis on water use.

Although much of the project is scientific, it places research on crops and farming practices in the context of the widespread changes taking place in Indian society today.

The programme’s short-term vision is to improve Indian crop science and food security, but, ultimately TIGR2ESS will be about food security for the whole world.

Solving this challenge – providing adequate nutritious food for the planet’s burgeoning population – requires the combined efforts of engineers, geographers and mathematicians.

Together they must collaborate to develop tools to predict future demands for energy, land and water.

Plant and veterinary scientists must collaborate with colleagues across the world to improve crop yields and livestock resilience to disease.

But it doesn’t only require scientists.

Solving food security requires researchers in the humanities and social sciences to analyse the political economy of food supply, and to evaluate the role of political structures in the production and distribution of food.

It requires greater understanding of the regulatory frameworks of land ownership, and the economics of changes in land-use.

It requires public policy analysts to formulate methods of embedding new practices in communities and nations.

When thinking about grand challenges, it’s not just water or food we must secure – it’s everything else in our world that we care about.

But how do we weigh the value of all those things we care about?

Here at Cambridge, Professor Diane Coyle in the Bennett Institute for Public Policy is working on new ways to measure what we value.

Because when governments and policymakers understand what we value, they will understand what we have to save.

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The beauty of universities is that we have the power to reach out across the world.

This capacity – this power – is being challenged.

Not only Brexit, but a generally more inhospitable environment, are making the challenge of attracting and retaining international staff and students more difficult.

Of course Cambridge is not alone in this.

The BBC reported the other day on a scheme that has existed for 20 years, whereby young farmers and agricultural students from all over Europe were able to come to Britain to intern on farms here and learn British farming methods.

It seems incredibly wasteful to me that such a scheme should be coming to an end this year.

Not only have British farmers benefited from having diverse young people working on their land, but they have contributed their experience to those young people starting out.

And not only that – they have learnt each other’s cultural traditions.

I hope they have developed mutual respect and understanding.

When such programmes are being lost across this country, we – as universities – have an added imperative to ensure that such cultural exchanges are not lost in the academic sphere.

Cambridge, as a University – as a world-leading University – as a household name – as a concentration of some of the greatest minds on the planet – as a magnet for brilliant students – as a place where ideas are conceived, tried and tested – has the power to convene, to connect and to instigate collaboration.

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Throughout history, universities have been the sites where the big questions are put, and where we have strived to find answers.

Nowhere more so than here at Cambridge.

For our generation, this is the great responsibility.

Finding answers to common challenges needs research and teaching institutions with the right of expertise to help find the solutions.

Research and teaching institutions that are not seeking to profit, but to help.

Research and teaching institutions that have their contribution to society placed firmly at their core.

Research institutions that, no matter where they are based, are looking at improving outcomes for all people and the planet, through ideas, discoveries and innovation.

The more we – as universities – bring the people of different nations and backgrounds together – the more we encourage everyone to understand our diverse viewpoints and to work towards our common goals – the more successful our endeavours will be.

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That applies not only to research, but of course, to education.

 “Education” said Nelson Mandela, speaking about social change, “is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

And he was right.

But the education a student receives at university is about so much more than lectures and tutorials, essays and exams.

It’s about understanding the importance of learning across a career and a life.

It’s about learning to understand others – to articulate one’s point of view – to listen and debate without rancour.

It’s about building connections and friendships, locally, nationally and internationally – developing networks of support.

It’s about growing into the kind of leaders we need in the world.

And again, I don’t just mean prime ministers and presidents, vice-chancellors and CEOs.

I meant citizens of integrity who have strong personal ethics, but who will hear the opinions of others with respect.

Global citizens, who understand that every one of this planet’s 7.2 billion unique human beings has a place in the world.

It is my firm belief that one of the primary duties of a university in a democratic society is to promote intercultural understanding among students, staff and alumni.

In this complex world, our responsibility to equip our students to engage constructively with cultural diversity is as important as the instilling of higher-level literacy and numeracy.

Because conflicts escalate when polemics and confrontation prevail.

We are seeing the consequences of this now, throughout the world.

Soundbites and tweets, ill-considered and often taken at face value, are pervasive.

The same technology that can enables us to connect and learn from each other and to make the world a better place is being used to cause society to fracture.

The American poet and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde said: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences.”

Our role as a university is to teach our students and help our staff to recognise, and not only accept but also value those differences.

We must help them to see that when people accept the ostracising, blaming or bullying of others because they are different, they diminish their own human experience and impede our ability as people and as a society to be the best we can be.

As universities, we must remember that it can be especially difficult to embrace intellectual diversity.

We must help our students to interrogate the real differences among us and find resolutions to the conflicts that arise from those differences.

And we, university people, must respect difference and encourage capacity for critical thought.

And we must engage with our wider community, because social change doesn’t happen within universities.

We must remember that in an age of anxiety, not only leaders, but ordinary people build walls around themselves to hide from an overwhelming world.

Barricaded behind walls, people can pretend that the problems of the world do not exist – or do not relate to them.

They can hide from the things they do not want to see – and the things they do not want to hear.

But as George Orwell once said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

We in the UK have that liberty, and universities must use it.

Yet the liberty to speak about our perceptions of the truth does not mean the right to ignore the opinions of others.

In telling people what they may not want to hear, we must be sensitive to the anxiety in the community, and the very genuine reasons for it.

We need to understand cultural and economic differences so that we may find the words to speak of our objectives and achievements in ways that do not patronise.

Our challenge as universities is to tell our stories – our positive stories – in a way that is both persuasive and powerful.

We must engage with the communities we serve, and we must show them that we have their interests at heart.

That their interests are our interests.

We must cut windows through those walls of isolation, and invite our communities to see what we do.

We must assume a position of modesty.

That means we must listen, because through listening we will learn what people hope to hear from us, and to connect our stories to theirs.

Through genuine listening, we will counter the perception that universities are elite institutions, and by telling our stories we will show that universities are far from strongholds of the establishment.

Universities are places where minds are encouraged to develop, and where ideas flourish.

Universities – seats of learning and discovery – are places where the breakthroughs are made, and the innovations developed, that fuel our future.

Places where potential leaders – academic, entrepreneurial, political, artistic and civic – are nurtured.

Places where knowledge is created, collected, curated and communicated.

Places where governments, international organisations, businesses, the non-profit sector and leading researchers and thinkers come together to find solutions to urgent global problems.

Universities are by definition places where we examine the manifold dimensions of our shared humanity.

Together – and as difficult as this is – we must find ways to engage with belief systems that cannot accept the possibility of alternatives.

There has always been division within and between nations.

Division within and between religions.

Division within and between ethnic groups.

Division that is compounded when we do not take the time to understand each other.

Division that is compounded by the stresses we have placed on this planet – stresses some refuse to see despite overwhelming evidence.

Despite the floods and fires, the famines and droughts.

Self-interest leads those with power – or those who seek it – to emphasise our differences.

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But universities represent something quite different.

It is useful to be reminded that the word 'university' comes from the same root as the word 'universal': the Latin universitas – 'The whole'.

In executing their missions, universities like Cambridge remind us that we don’t have time for polemics.

That we don’t have time for confrontation and conflict.

That we don’t have time for fake news, for soundbites and ill-considered tweets.

Universities are a reminder that, now more than ever, we need reasoned, evidence based debate.

We need the collaboration and the diverse points of view that have led to the greatest developments of the past and that will lead to the innovations that will preserve our planet and our future.

Universities remind us of our human history.

Indeed, collaboration across time – and across the world – has always happened.

But now, we have the capacity to work together in ways we couldn’t have imagined even just twenty years ago.

We live in a world that is shrinking in terms of travel time, and where we can be connected in an instant to others all over the planet.

This level of connection is unprecedented in the world’s history.

It is now easier than ever to share our ideas – to share our knowledge – and indeed, to collaborate together.

And who better to lead the collaboration than universities?

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I know I’ve stressed urgency and the need for action – and I need to.

But I want to finish on a positive note, because this really is an incredibly exciting time.

It is a time when universities can lead genuine social change.

More and more colleagues across the University are giving serious thought to how we achieve social change.

Last month I attended an awards ceremony for university students doing extraordinary and innovative volunteer work, with a focus on social impact. It was truly inspiring.

I know that the Judge Business School will be launching a series of lectures on social change, with a focus on the environment and health among other subjects. 

I was especially excited to learn about CCI developing its own “Theory of Change”, beginning with a desired impact and working its way back to the necessary actions and approaches that will make the vision a reality.

CCI’s model of change is based on a informing and influencing a wide community, way beyond the boundaries of the academic world.

The work that our Faculty of Education carries out in schools across the East of England – raising educational aspirations and improving lives – is something to be truly proud of.

I am hugely encouraged by this growing awareness of what we – uniquely, as a global university – can achieve.

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I know I’ve stressed urgency and the need for action — and I need to.

But I want to finish on a positive note, because this really is an incredibly exciting time.

It is a time when universities can lead genuine social change.

More and more colleagues across the University are giving serious thought to how we achieve social change.

Last month I attended an awards ceremony for university students doing extraordinary and innovative volunteer work, with a focus on social impact. It was truly inspiring.

I know that the Judge Business School will be launching a series of lectures on social change, with a focus on the environment and health among other subjects. 

I was especially excited to learn about CCI developing its own “Theory of Change”, beginning with a desired impact and working its way back to the necessary actions and approaches that will make the vision a reality.

CCI’s model of change is based on a informing and influencing a wide community, way beyond the boundaries of the academic world.

The work that our Faculty of Education carries out in schools across the East of England – raising educational aspirations and improving lives – is something to be truly proud of.

I am hugely encouraged by this growing awareness of what we – uniquely, as a global university – can achieve.

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Universities have an extraordinary ability – and an obligation – to direct our efforts towards ensuring the world becomes a better place.

We have the capacity for immense achievement, not the least of which is to support positive change in society.

But being at the forefront of social change demands the humility to listen to the societies we serve, and truly understand their needs.

It demands that we remain open to collaborating, to sharing knowledge and to learning from others.

It demands that we are inclusive, and embrace diversity in all its forms.

Only then can universities – only then can our university – truly live up to the challenge set by Barack Obama:

To be the ones we’ve been waiting for.

To be the change that we seek.