Resurrecting the role of rector

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The dust is finally starting to settle on last week’s Rectorial Elections that saw the uncontested Labour MEP, Catherine Stihler, become St Andrews’ 52nd rector.

As this newspaper explained at the time in a joint editorial with The Sinner, St Andrews’ long and rich history of promoting democracy was tarnished by denying students their democratic right. The fact that a mere 20 signatures is enough to appoint the representative of 8,000 students is disquieting.

The much maligned clause 19 that prevented Ms Stihler going up against RON will now be put before the Students’ Representative Council (SRC). If our student representatives have any sense, it will be swiftly jettisoned.

In one of her first interviews since her appointment, Ms Stihler told The Saint this week that the prospect of running unopposed was “unimaginable”. Annie Newman, Ms Stihler’s campaign manager, told STAR Radio’s Alexander Jones last week that her flat was now overflowing with unnecessary flyers. By all accounts, what could and should have been the celebration of an ancient and unique role in ancient Scottish universities, was a damp squib.

In 2011, the last time a rector was elected, five very different candidates ranging from the socialist, Colin Fox, to the Conservative, Lord Michael Forsyth, took to St Andrews’ cobbled streets to win students’ votes.

The role of the rector is enshrined in Scottish law. Under the Universities Scotland Act 1889 rectors impartially preside over meetings of the court (the university’s governing body) where they discuss financial and administrative issues.

Rachel Hanretty, former Editor of he Saint, wrote in The Herald in 2011: “[The rector is] quite a powerful position, to put it mildly. Apart from anything else, the very well paid and powerful Principal must report to the rector. What a power trip.”

Fast forward three years and the idea of finding five people to put themselves forward for the role seems like a pipe dream. Indeed, ask students and most of them will not be able to tell you what a rector even does. The question to which no one really has an answer is why.

Alistair Moffat, the University’s outgoing rector, started strongly enough. He won a resounding victory and launched the Rector’s Fund, offering internships to St Andrews students who might not otherwise be able to afford the costs involved.

However, the bright start soon faded and by the end of his term, Mr Moffat had suffered ignominy of being called before the Academic Senate and told to separate his personal and University business after he accused two University College London geneticists of committing libel against his company Britains DNA. Mr Moffat was told that his behaviour had been “contrary to the principles of academic freedom and honest scientific debate in a matter of public interest.”

Is Mr Moffat to blame for the lack of interest this year? Has the role itself become an anachronism, a relic of bygone years when celebrity authors and comedians had the time, money and inclination to wend their way to north east Fife every now and then to
hold a surgery?

This newspaper believes that the rector should be a vital representative of students and their interests at University Court. It is now for Ms Stihler to reconstruct the role of rector.

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