‘Disagreeing well’ is as important as agreeing, the new Cambridge University vice-chancellor has said as she leads a drive for free speech.
Prof Deborah Prentice has called for students at her university to “lead challenging conversations” and stressed that freedom of speech is “fundamental” across higher education.
In an article for the Telegraph, the university’s first American vice-chancellor also said Cambridge “must recruit the very best students from every corner of the country and from every background”.
Her comments come three months into her tenure as the 347th Cambridge vice-chancellor and less than a year after the university was embroiled in its own free speech row – when a college master described the views of a gender critical speaker as “hateful”.
Prof Prentice said: “I want to hear the views of teachers and young people on what they are facing, and what they think about the role of our universities.
“We must recruit the very best students from every corner of the country and from every background, maintaining the highest standards and being a focus for aspiration.”
Prof Prentice added: “Conversations on the campuses of this country have always been central to this.
“That must continue even if it is not always easy.”
A debate on gender ideology
In November last year, a Cambridge college master came under fire for attacking Helen Joyce, the author and former Economist journalist.
Ms Joyce believes biological sex is binary and immutable, but is being overridden by self-identified genders espoused by trans activists.
She had been invited to Gonville and Caius College by Prof Arif Ahmed, a fellow, for a debate on gender ideology.
But Prof Pippa Rogerson, head of Gonville and Caius College, joined the college’s senior tutor in vowing to boycott the talk and in an email to students the pair branded Ms Joyce’s views “offensive, insulting and hateful to members of our community who live and work here”.
Prof Rogerson would go on to write a letter to graduates in which he said “free speech was fundamental”, after outraged donors threatened to pull funding.
Prof Arif Ahmed has since been appointed as the Government’s university freedom of speech champion.
Free speech has also been a heated issue in other higher education institutions across the country.
Earlier this year, Prof Kathleen Stock, the gender-critical feminist, was forced to temporarily halt an appearance at the Oxford Union, when a trans activist glued themselves to the floor of the debating chamber.
Before arriving at Cambridge, Prof Prentice spent her entire 34-year academic career at Princeton University, New Jersey.
She has insisted she is an academic “first, last and always” and was previously chair of the department of psychology at the Ivy League institution.
Annual address to university
On Monday Prof Prentice is set to give her annual address to the university.
The vice-chancellor also stressed the university would have to consider how it would afford to attract the best academics to Cambridge.
She wrote: “Higher education is becoming more globally competitive each year.
“We want to attract the best academics from around the world, and for them to stay here.
“With the rising cost of living, and overseas universities being able to pay more, that is a difficult task, but we are looking hard at how we support our staff.”
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