Rectors through the ages: an abridged history

Rudyard Kipling at St Andrews Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Current rector Alistair Moffat. Photo: Celeste Sloman
Current rector Alistair Moffat.
Photo: Celeste Sloman

In 1858, the role of rector was established at St Andrews. Elected by the students of the University, the rector is meant to represent their interests and to lobby the University Court on behalf of their concerns.

Since then, the Court has seen 51 rectors preside over its meetings. This week, nominations for our 52nd rector open, with campaigns and the election to follow. As our current rector, Alistair Moffat, closes his term, The Saint looks back on the long and illustrious rectorial history he will soon join.

The University’s first rector, Sir Ralph Anstruther, began the first three-year term in 1859, after the UK Parliament had passed the Universities (Scotland) Act the year before. This act established the ancient university governance structure as well as formalized the role of rector at a handful of Scottish universities, including Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dundee and Glasgow. And, of course, St Andrews.

In 1865, John Stuart Mill began his term as rector of the University. Best known for his pioneering social, political and economic theories – such as the harm principle and his advocacy of utilitarianism – Mill is still often invoked during graduation addresses and rectorial inauguration speeches. During his own inaugural address, which was long overdue, being delivered two years after his appointment as rector and lasting for over two hours, Mill said, “Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skillful lawyers, or physicians or engineers, but capable and cultivate human beings.” While many things in St Andrews have changed since then, one would hope that this sentiment still stands.

John Cleese's inauguration as rector.
John Cleese’s inauguration as rector.

The first elected rector of the 20th century was Andrew Carnegie. Born in Fife, he immigrated to the United States as a child, where he soon became the paragon of rags-to-riches success. Carnegie Steel was crucial to the expansion of the American steel industry in the late nineteenth century, and it made him the richest man in the world to boot. After selling his company, he spent the rest of his life committed to philanthropy, giving away nearly all of his fortune. In addition to founding Carnegie Hall in New York and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he also proved very generous to St Andrews. He gave the University a gym, a sports field and a library extension, in addition to his time as rector.

One of the most famous former rectors is J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan. During his 1922 inauguration speech, he famously spoke of courage. Addressing the students, he told them they would need it to wrest back their futures from the hands of their elders. He implored them to take the lead when it came to leadership, to question the decisions that led to WWI and which would lead to the next war. But mostly he encouraged them to compromise, “To hold that the time has arrived for youth to demand that partnership, and to demand it courageously. That to gain courage is what you came to St Andrews for.” While he could hardly extend an invitation to Neverland, he certainly celebrated the youthful potential of the students who elected him.

Rudyard Kipling succeeded Barrie as rector, continuing a short-lived literary streak of reputable children’s literature giants. (Kipling wrote The Jungle Book, as well as many other works of more adult literature.) A week after his rectorial address in 1923, Kipling wrote a letter to the editor of College Echoes, in which he asks: ‘Will you please convey to my Constituents at St Andrews my keen appreciation of the wonderful week that I owe to them, and my deep delight in my seat. It was literally no fault of theirs that I did not lose my head, which would have been a pity, seeing that I had already given them my heart.’ He was a devoted rector indeed.

Half a century later, John Cleese – cofounder of Monty Python and lauded actor – became rector. He began his term in 1970. As the first entertainer to be named rector, Cleese was eager to prove his merit. He delivered a satirical inauguration address, modeled after Barrie’s speech on courage, which addressed the topic of cowardice. Cleese also holds the distinguished position of tallest rector in St Andrews history.

In 1982, the first (and only) female rector in St Andrews history, Katharine Whitehorn, began her term. As a journalist and writer, Whitehorn is known for her wit and humor as well as her work detailing the changing role of women in British society. In her 2008 memoir, Selective Memory, she recounts quite honestly her experience as rector. After running unopposed, she felt she needed to justify her appointment to the role. She also hits at an essential truth about the position, writing, ‘The rector of a Scottish university is an odd hybrid: you’re elected by the students and supposed to be their champion – but you actually chair the “Court,” the governing body of the university.’

It is this balance between student representation and professional management that makes the job of rector so important and so challenging. Let’s hope that our next rector sets himself or herself apart from the rest, earning a spot on the short list of the most memorable by serving out his or her term with skill and panache.


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