September 29, 2022 - 7:00am

Professor Deborah Prentice may bring impeccable academic credentials to her new role as the University of Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, but her approach to student freedom is somewhat less stellar. If students were hoping that the departure of the unpopular Stephen Toope, two years ahead of plan, marked an end to restrictive campus attitudes, Prentice may be something of a shock.

Her previous stint as provost of Princeton University gives some clues as to how she might govern at Cambridge. From restrictive Covid-19 policies to stringent speech codes, Prentice oversaw the implementation of a number of limitations on student freedom, which left Princeton ranked at 169th out of 203 higher education institutions in the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)’s most recent College Free Speech Rankings.

During the Covid era, Prentice’s leadership was among the most authoritarian in the country. Last year, she announced that all full-time, visiting and temporary staff required proof of Covid-19 vaccination as well as all students. As recently as February of this year, Princeton was limiting travel for students though not, strangely, for staff. An edict from December 2021 reads: “all undergraduate students who have returned to campus will not be permitted to travel outside of Mercer County or Plainsboro Township for personal reasons, except in extraordinary circumstances.”

Interestingly, the psychology professor’s specialism is the study of social norms. In a forthcoming publication she observes that:

‘People are more likely to express opinions they believe to be consistent with […] group norms than those they believe to be inconsistent with these norms. Public opinion researchers have long recognised that believing oneself to be deviant is silencing, even when that belief is inaccurate.’ 

In her pastoral role at Princeton, however, Prentice was not forthcoming when it came to defending dissenting opinions inconsistent with liberal university ‘norms’ on the likes of Covid and free expression.

This came into sharp focus after an essay for Quillette was published in July 2020, in which classics professor Joshua Katz said he was ‘embarrassed’ on behalf of students and faculty who had signed an open letter demanding a review into racial discrimination at Princeton in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. 

The letter directly addressed Prentice, but clearly she could not quite manage to overhaul the structural racism embedded in Princeton. Instead, the most headline-grabbing outcome of her review was the removal of alumnus and former US President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the university’s School of Public and International Affairs. 

Prentice’s much-maligned predecessor at Cambridge was no stranger to free speech controversies during his time as vice-chancellor. Last year, Toope had to make an embarrassing retraction after Cambridge’s new speech-and-behaviour policy was savaged for its encouragement of students to report one another for infringements concerning ‘micro-aggressions’. 

In late 2020, Cambridge’s governing body rejected a new set of speech codes, requiring members of the university community to maintain ‘respect’ for the views and identities of others. A group of academics, led by philosophy professor Arif Ahmed, successfully proposed an amendment which substituted the word ‘tolerance’ in place of ‘respect’. 

Deborah Prentice, not a figure widely known in the UK, will surely begin her tenure with more goodwill. Speaking to UnHerd, Arif Ahmed said that Cambridge’s governing body had ensured “there can be no compromise whatsoever on our fundamental values of free speech and academic freedom for all our students and staff. I am sure Prof. Prentice understands these points and I wish her all the best.”

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.