Stihler victorious as democracy set aside in “unbelievable” elections

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Photo Credit: Henry Legg

Answers are needed as to why students were not given the chance to elect their rector and why only one nominee was put forward for the election, Catherine Stihler has told The Saint.

The Labour MEP, who was declared rector on Thursday 30 October after running unopposed, described the result as “pretty unbelievable”, adding: “I never thought in a month of Sundays that there would be a sole nominee.”

“I feel in a very curious position. It’s not a position I ever thought I’d be put in. This week I thought I’d be out fighting a campaign.

“But I am where I am and I must make sure that this week I’m out talking to as many people about the issues they’re concerned about,” she said. Ms Stihler’s “uncontested appointment” sparked fury last week as students took to social media to express their discontent .

This uproar was caused by clause 19 of the 2014 Rectorial Elections rules, which states: “In the case of one candidate being validly nominated, no election shall take place and this candidate will be automatically appointed.” The offending clause 19 was part of the Rectorial Election 2014 rules approved by the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) at a meeting in September.

According to the minutes from the meeting, Ondrej Hajda, director of representation said: “The University Court, the highest academic body in the University, has already approved these rules.

“They were drafted cooperatively by a number of people including Mr [Pat] Mathewson, at the time rector’s assessor, Ms Hill, the then president of the Union, and the vice principal for governance.

“They’re basically asking us to take a look at the rules and approve them. We can debate them but they’re really just asking us to take a note of them and to start operating in accordance with them.”

The rules were presented to the SRC and the motion was adopted without dissent. No member raised any issue with clause 19 at this time.

Asked if she would be in favour of scrapping clause 19, Ms Stihler said: “I want to take soundings from people. It’s for the students to determine.”

Clause 19 has been applied to University elections previously. Sir Menzies Campbell was appointed Chancellor in 2006 when he ran unopposed. His election was confirmed by the Clerk at close of nominations.

Chloe Hill, president of the Students’ Association at the time the rules were passed, opposed clause 19 at the Governance and Nominations meeting. She was overruled by the University officials in attendance however and the rule was passed.

She said: “The University wrote the rules. We were given an opportunity to look at them and comment, but that was the wrong way round.

“The Union should have written the rules (based on our normal election rules) and the University could then give suggestions. “It’s very hard to completely take apart rules in a Governance and Nominations meeting which is University representatives and external trustees. “However, the SRC had the opportunity to catch further issues but didn’t. At the end of the day I think people didn’t expect to only have one candidate, because we normally have such strongly contested elections.”

Yet the election was not contested at all. Although the writer Val McDermid had been intending to run, she pulled out at the last minute leaving Ms Stihler as the only candidate.

“Questions have to be asked about why no one else put themselves forward when it was one of the best advertised Rectorial Elections,” Ms Stihler commented.

Jack Carter, School of History president, and Ali West, former SRC member for gender equality started a motion by petition to the SRC to change the election rules.

In a Facebook post, Ms West said: “I have all sorts of respect for Catherine Stihler, and in most circumstances I likely would have voted for her in the Rectorial Election 2014.

“However, I don’t believe that an uncontested election can ever be fair or democratic, and I resent the assumption that the paucity of candidates implies the automatic assent of the entire student body.

“Surely there must have been provision, in an election which is normally run on an A/V ballot, to run an uncontested candidate against the option to Re-Open Nominations. The election should have been run, as normal, against RON, to give those who do not agree with Ms Stihler the opportunity to spoil their ballots and run the election again should they so choose.”

The petition reached the required 25 signatures within two hours and will be put to the SRC at their next meeting on Tuesday 18 November. It has already reached over 60 signatures. A second petition, which has the same aim but was initiated by a different group, will also be presented. The high number of students who have signed these petitions strengthens their case, however this does not mean that the motion will automatically pass; the members of the SRC
must still vote and could reject it.

The motion states: “This SRC believes:

“1. In order to take office, the Lord Rector should have a democratic mandate from the Students of the University of St Andrews.

“2. Clause 19 of the University’s Rules for Rectorial Elections directly contravenes this principle, and the principles of the Association’s general elections policy.

“3. A lack of nominations does not necessarily reflect apathy on the part of the student body, and as a consequence should not be taken as automatic assent to a single candidate.

“4. A Rector without a democratic mandate lacks the authority that those who have gone through an electoral process has, which benefits nobody.”

Ms West pointed to the ludicrous situation that it took more people to pass the petition than it did to appoint the rector. She described the situation to The Saint as “a complete anomaly and really inappropriate”, insisting that in an AV system, students should have had the chance to vote RON and spoil their ballots.

Ms Stihler told The Saint: “There are pros and cons to not having RONS. Debates rested on the cost of reopening nominations and then the uncertainty of RON as well when you have a sole nominee wanting to put themselves forward to do a job and a job of work. “I know there are people who are thinking about the whole situation and that’s fair enough. It’s something that has be explored. “I’m very hon- oured humbled privileged and now want to get on with the job. I want to do the best job that I can to be an open and accessible rector to the student community,” she said.

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