by Rob Lownie
Thursday, 29
September 2022
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07:00

Deborah Prentice: Cambridge’s lockdown-loving new head

The university's new vice-chancellor may prove to be controversial
by Rob Lownie
Deborah Prentice was previously provost of Princeton University

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.


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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.”

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Peter B
Peter B
2 months ago

Another North American. Why ? Do we really not have British people who can do this ?

Terry M
Terry M
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Apparently, you have a shortage of idiots. We are glad to get this witch out of the US.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
2 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

And the Brits are voluntarily accepting her! Our gain in getting her out of the US is Britain’s loss.

Last edited 2 months ago by betsyarehart
Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
2 months ago

The facts must faced: Graduates from institutions like this are no longer the best and the brightest.

Peter B
Peter B
2 months ago
Reply to  Richard Abbot

What is your evidence for this ?

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Evidence isn’t required to support any assertion, and certainly not that one. Employers use their judgement. Currently I’d be pretty wary of any recent Cambridge, Oxford, or Bristol graduate presenting themselves for employment.

Peter B
Peter B
2 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Then it’s just prejudice (if you don’t need evidence) !
I’ve seen many recent Cambridge computer science and engineering graduates and there’s no problem with them. They have all been excellent. CAn’t comment on Oxford or Bristol (this used to be the undisputed #3 university 30 odd years ago, but seems to have slipped in the rankings if those mean anything) or other subjects.

Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

I’ve heard standards have dropped and it’s like limbo dancing under a twenty foot bridge. Personally I blame…anyone I can think of at the time but mostly America

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Science graduates seem to be relatively free of this ridiculous’Woke- Lack of Moral Fibre (LMF) nonsense.
However it has permeated the Arts/Humanities world to a terrifying degree.
Perhaps we should abandon Arts/ Humanities as a complete ‘waste of rations’.
At best it is merely vocational, at worse, downright seditious.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
2 months ago

Yes. The Truss and forthcoming De Santis or Trump administration should withdraw all student loans funding for non-STEM courses.
If you want to buy one of those, pay for it yourself. Or see if you can borrow the money at commercial rates, though the banks – unlike the muggins State and perennially ass-r*ped taxpayer – will need convincing that you might one day earn enough to repay them, and with a worthless degree in Gender Studies, you won’t.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
2 months ago

The Monster is coming for the sciences.

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

If we agree the the literal meaning of the word as, “pre-conceived prior to evidence” then yes, that’s exactly what it is.
I would view such applicants from a starting point that they might have been inculcated with some prejudices of their own, that would be detrimental to the business. I would hope to be proved wrong. But that would be the starting point.
It is the same when interviewing anyone from the public sector. You know what the problems may well be, before you meet them. But you give it a go – it would be silly not to. Hunches (a better word, I think) are not always right – but quite often they are.
It “isn’t fair” I know. But fortunately, when I was young, no one was stupid enough to tell me that the world is, or should be, fair. So I grew up free of the crippling handicap of hope that it might be fair.

Nick Wright
Nick Wright
2 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Why Bristol?

Ben McMullen
Ben McMullen
2 months ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Why is that?

Ben McMullen
Ben McMullen
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Why is that?

Peter B
Peter B
2 months ago
Reply to  Ben McMullen

What in particular ?

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Their every utterance and action, for starters.

Oliver Barclay
Oliver Barclay
2 months ago

Oh brilliant. They hired Susan Michie’s sister.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
2 months ago

Farewell Cambridge!
The glorious days of ‘Porterhouse’ are finally ended. “Dives in Omnia”.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 months ago

It’s difficult to imagine anyone worse than Stephen Toope, but she might yet prove herself his equal.

Aaron James
Aaron James
2 months ago

The Fasci* t Left is letting us peek behind the veil……what an evil woman

Last edited 2 months ago by Aaron James
Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
2 months ago

Intelligence doesn’t equate with censorship (limited thought equals limited intelligence). I lived in Cambridge once but don’t hold that against me. I had a friend who went to Fitzwilliam college but I only worked (once and briefly) at Trinity Hall as a porter. I have also watched Miami Vice, once. Does this qualify me to be vice-chancellor? Personally I think Professor Tempest should have got it but who cares what I think and Hugh isn’t saying.

Glyn R
Glyn R
2 months ago

Why was the woman given this important role? Her stint at Princeton could hardly be a recommendation. There is something rotten going on.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
2 months ago

Another North American import into the UK to add to a relentlessly expanding list that includes BLM, Mark Carney, identity politics, misandry, CRT, bubble gum, Stephen Toope, etc..