David Starkey is the face of Cambridge

How do you measure the impact of a university?

Cambridge david starkey King's video world

UPDATE: The video has now been withdrawn, but CUSU BME campaign and McIntosh are still urging people to sign, since the university has not yet offered a full apology. Dr Malachi McIntosh is a fellow at King’s.


On the 12 August 2011, at the end of a week of rioting and disturbances across England, the BBC gathered a Newsnight panel to present their understanding of the root causes of the violence.

Of the contributions made, only one, from the Tudor historian David Starkey, is widely remembered. Starkey’s explanation of an uprising that spread from Tottenham to West Bromwich to Gloucester? After quoting Enoch Powell’s race-baiting ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, he declared that Powell was right, ‘in one sense’, ‘a substantial amount of the chavs have become black. The whites have become black; a particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion.’

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Starkey on Newsnight, 2011

Fast-forward to 2015 and an April interview in the Daily Telegraph. When asked whether he thought there was a ‘black propensity to violence in this country’, David Starkey replied: ‘It would appear so. Well, if you look at the statistics – indeed! If you look at mugging, shootings and stabbings. The figures I’m afraid are unchallengeable…You have an endorsement of types of violence. You have particular sorts of family breakdown…We’re on the one hand told there are no genetic differences between races and yet on the other hand it is very striking how different, more or less, racial groups seem to perform athletically, intellectually, commercially, whatever. Who knows? I don’t know. I’m not a geneticist.’

Now switch on YouTube, and search ‘Dear World, Cambridge’ and watch as David Starkey strolls calmly across a classroom, switches on a lighted chalkboard, turns and says, as he writes the same, ‘Dear world, how do you measure the impact of a university?’ as the voice and face of our globally aimed fundraising campaign.

How do you measure the impact of a university? Is it, perhaps, by the gaps between what it says it wants to achieve and what it does? Ian White, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Affairs, has expressed a commitment to making Cambridge open to all, arguing that ‘the University’s diversity plays a key role in sustaining its academic excellence’.

Harvey McGrath, the campaign co-chair, states in the new video: ‘It’s simple, we need to attract the best minds from every background, to inspire them to follow their dreams and encourage them to achieve greater and greater things together’ [1:48]. So why is it that the campaign has chosen David Starkey, a man who has repeatedly made racist statements, as its principal voice and face?

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How do you measure the impact of a university?

Any institution making this choice of representative would seem to care very little about its appearance in the eyes of Black and Minority Ethnic students and staff, current and future. Any institution making this choice would seem, too, to be uncaring about its appearance in the eyes of other groups often marginalised at Cambridge, Starkey’s Newsnight comments aimed as much at working class white Britons as anyone else, his track record for disparaging women almost as well-known as his racism.

The University has made a glaring mistake with this new campaign. The video seems to aim to offer a sense of the very best contributions Cambridge has made the world’s arts, sciences and understanding but David Starkey’s presence hampers the attainment of that aim. For that reason, several students and staff have organised an open letter to the Vice Chancellor and the University’s development offices calling for the immediate withdrawal of the ‘Dear World’ video from public view, and the suspension of its use in fundraising activities. Further, we are calling for an apology from the University for its grave mistake in choosing the campaign’s main figure.

As a collective we have many, many messages to share with the world. ‘David Starkey speaks for us’ is not one of them.

This article is an edited version of the open letter. See and sign the full letter here.