For 30 years, Stephen Toope enjoyed a distinguished career in law and academia that included high-profile leadership positions at some of Canada's top universities. But when the Montreal-born scholar learned that Britain's University of Cambridge was considering him for the vice-chancellor role, his first thought was: "That's just not possible."

Toope's initial disbelief was replaced by a realization that he could not miss the opportunity to lead the venerable institution, where he had completed his PhD in the 1980s. Last October, he was installed as the University of Cambridge's 346th vice-chancellor -- the first non-Briton to take the role in the university's 800-year history.

Giving such a prestigious, highly paid position to a foreigner may seem unusual at a time when Britain is negotiating its departure from the European Union and is perceived to be more inward-looking.

But in an interview with CTV's Daniele Hamamdjian, Toope said that Cambridge seemed to be looking "for an outside perspective" in its search for a new leader.

"I think having someone who's not from the United Kingdom was, oddly, seen as potentially an advantage at this moment," said the former president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia and former director of the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.

He added that Cambridge is a "global" university that will remain committed to its European partners and continue "reaching out to the world."

Toope, who was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2015, said he is also "absolutely committed" to making Cambridge more accessible to talented students from all walks of life.

He acknowledged that Cambridge is seen as an elitist institution for the offspring of wealthy and well-connected families, but said he's determined to change that.

"One of the things that I'm absolutely committed to -- and I know that I share this with many of my colleagues -- is greater openness of the university," he said.

"We know we have to do more."

Toope, an international law and human rights scholar who has previously worked with various Canadian and United Nations agencies, has received high praise for the expertise and knowledge he brings to his new role at Cambridge. But he's also faced criticism over his annual salary of 365,000 pounds (more than CAD$640,000), which is more than double what British Prime Minister Theresa May makes.

"I will only say that the salary for the role was established before I applied, so there was absolutely no negotiating about salary whatsoever," Toope told CTV News.

He said he was "grateful" for the pay and believes the salary is reasonable given the scope of his job.

"I will stand by the work that I do."

Dealing with sexual misconduct on campus

Toope's work will also include tackling difficult issues like sexual harassment and assault on campus. The university recently admitted it has a "significant problem" after its "Breaking the Silence" campaign yielded 173 anonymous reports of sexual misconduct in just nine months.

Toope said the university wants to make sure that victims of harassment have access to "real remedies," but also that "due process" is followed.

"I think there will be a lot of pressure to respond precipitously to accusations. We have an obligation to be fair to everyone involved in those situations," he said.

Asked about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's comment last month that women who speak out against sexual harassment must be listened to and believed, Toope said he thinks that's "an overstatement."

"There are people who tell the truth, there are people who lie -- of all genders, of all races, of all cultures," he said.

Toope said there is an obligation to "carefully" listen to sexual misconduct allegations, but "we have to exercise judgement."

Remembering his parents

Toope said his days as a student at Cambridge played a part in preparing him for the enormous task of leading the university. He recalled how his parents came to visit him on campus, their first and only overseas trip. It was a bittersweet memory he has cherished in the years since their tragic deaths.

In 1995, three teenagers broke into Frank and Jocelyn Toope's Montreal-area home, thinking the couple was asleep. When Toope's parents arose, they were beaten to death. The teens were ultimately convicted of the crime.

Toope fondly remembered his parents' "sense of awe and wonder" when they visited him at Cambridge.

"They loved this place. They thought it was absolutely stunning," he recalled.

"I honestly can't even imagine how they'd feel about me being in this role, but it's frankly very moving for me to think about it."

With a report from CTV's Daniele Hamamdjian