InFocus: Catherine Stihler, Rector of the University of St Andrews and MEP for Scotland

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Photo: Fire safe Europe
Photo: WikiCommons
Photo: WikiCommons

St Andrews’ 52nd Rector is unlike most who have preceded her in the role. As a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) since 1999, she is the first Rector in 116 years to hold the position while also serving in elected public office. She is only the second woman ever to take on the historic role. Active not only in European but student politics, in her time as a St Andrews student she was one of only six women elected as President of the St Andrews Students’ Association. Contrasting with the variety of academics, comedians, activists and other members of the British intelligentsia who have occupied the role in recent years, it is clear that Catherine Stihler’s desire to be Rector was based on a deeper connection to public service and St Andrews itself.

Indeed it may have been these unique experiences and qualities that led the Association President at the time of her election in 2014, Pat Mathewson, to remark that, “She is not only incredibly accomplished, but she is one of our own.”

The Saint spoke to Ms Stihler to ask what she thought she had been able to achieve in her first two years in office, what she still hoped to do, and her opinions of the changing world around us that St Andrews students will soon enter. Discussing what she feels has been achieved in the first two years of her term, Ms Stihler listed increasing accessibility as being one of the main initiatives she has pursued.

“Since I’ve been in the role, what I’ve tried to do is be accessible. So that might be through our surgeries that we hold, and also through social media. When people contact us we try and respond in an appropriate and effective way,” she said.

It is an uncertain time, people need to make sure that they know how valued our staff and students are valued

Ms Stihler also emphasised the work that had been done to expand the Rector’s fund. Started under her predecessor Alistair Moffat, the fund aims to give students a chance to have an internship they would not otherwise be able to afford. Indeed in Ms Stihler’s first year office, £14,000 was raised for the fund. Always quick to praise the work of other figures within the University, Ms Stihler also mentioned the efforts of both students and academics that she has worked with.

“Dylan [Bruce, Rector’s Assessor 2016/17], my new assessor has been working really hard and it’s been great to see that transition to having Annie [Newman, Rector’s Assessor 2015/16] as my assessor to having Dylan, as well as working with the new sabbatical team,” she said.” Ms Stihler also added her thanks for the support given by the Rector’s committee to both Mr Bruce and Ms Newman.

Going on, she said, “I feel very lucky with the students that I’m working with, the sense of commitment and professionalism is one which is a testament to the students in St Andrews and it’s a real joy to work with them.”

“Obviously the sabbatical officers are really important and that relationship’s really crucial,” Ms Stihler also praised the University’s new Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone saying that “it’s so impressive that our new Principal has used the words ‘excellence, inclusivity and fairness’ at the opening ceremony, which I completely agree with.”

The Rector also chairs the University Court, the main governing body of the institution, responsible for many of the major decision that affect the lives of students. Discussing her work on the Court Ms Stihler said, “There’s been big issues around accommodation so we’ve tried to increase bed spaces, the strategic issues around all of those kind of areas which are of interest to students, making sure students’ voices are heard and working with the student community.”

Ms Stihler also referenced the “Save the Rector” petition that was launched at the beginning of the last academic year, garnering over 3,000 signatures. The petition argued that the High Education Governance Bill would “end the Rectorship as we know it” by introducing separate chairs of university courts around Scotland. The bill was subsequently revised with provisions to protect the historic tradition.

“One of the things that I hadn’t prepared for was the Scottish Government’s Higher Education bill which actually put a threat to the Rector,” Ms Stihler said.

Going on, she added, “I spent a long time last year and the beginning of this year really fighting the case of why the Rector was still an important role and I felt that it was a real win that all the Rectors united and we didn’t lose that important Scottish tradition.”

“The student body were also important in that debate. The role of Rector in terms of accessibility and having a voice in the highest echelons of the University is important. I feel that an active Rector is important for the student community, not just having somebody who turns up and then leaves every so often.”

Photo credit: Yelim Lee
Photo credit: Yelim Lee

On the challenges that she sees students facing now and in the future Ms Stihler is clear that there is one that looms above all – Brexit. A fierce advocate of what she describes as the “European cause”, Ms Stihler expressed concern for the future of St Andrews and other British universities following the vote to leave the European Union (EU) in June.

“You’ve got the human element with the University, where it’s the staff and students that come from the EU,” Ms Stihler said.

Going on, she added, “It is an uncertain time and people need to make sure that they know how valued our staff and students are. One of the other biggest issues is research and research funding. I think last year it was about £7 million that benefited St Andrews from EU sources.

“To be honest, it’s not even about the money really, it’s about the collaboration. And it’s about the innovation that comes from the collaboration that we have. It’s an important aspect of all this work that is now being challenged because of the vote to leave the EU.”

Our European-ness as a University has been there since we were founded over 600 years ago

Ms Stihler also stressed her belief in the international, European nature of the University, and how she hoped this would continue even after theUK leaves the EU.

“The founding of our University came in 1413, from a Papal Bull from the continent. So our European-ness as a University has been there since we were founded over 600 years ago, and that will not disappear,” she said.

Continuing on, Ms Stihler added, “so that idea of an open internationalism which makes the University is very important and is something that I feel very strongly about.

“It’s these things like the Erasmus opportunities and the students who benefit from those experiences and it’s that kind of collaboration, and that opportunity that you have of being a bit more open, and thinking about the world in a bigger way and in a more open way.

“How we can maintain those kind of exchanges as we move forward is important. I think St Andrews will rise to the challenge.

Ms Stihler also expressed her deep concerns about the uncertainty that has surrounded the UK’s future after leaving the EU since the referendum.

“The truth of it is that nobody knows what is going to happen because Article 50 [the EU treaty article concerning states withdrawing from  the organisation] has never been triggered before.

“What we do know, is that Article 50, according to the Prime Minister will be triggered by the end of March, and after that then the process will really be driven by the other 27 EU countries.

“So the power will rest with the EU 27 and not with the UK, and at the moment it’s very unclear about whether there will be negotiation parallel to the divorce which will be able to define our future arrangements.“

Ms Stihler also went on to say that she believed it would be very difficult to secure any kind of “soft” exit from the EU, which would involve measures like staying in the single market.

“It’s very uncertain what is going to happen next, and anybody who tells you that they know what’s going to happen next is not being particularly truthful,” she said.

She went on to add, “My view at the moment, from the way the language is hardening, both from Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative party conference and then the Donald Tusk speech on Thursday (13 October) where he talked about the ‘cake philosophy’  people want to take the cake, eat it, and then try and see what’s left. He says there’s only two options, hard Brexit, or no Brexit.

“It’s looking very likely that we’re heading to a scenario of hard Brexit which means that the issues that are important to us about accessing the funding and such are probably going to have to be dealt with in the future arrangement, they’re not going to be a part of the divorce settlement.

“In fairness, a lot of people who collaborate with us from other countries also want us to participate so we just have to keep pressing and keep pushing the issues and make sure that our voice is not lost as we move forward to the really tough times that will be ahead.

“Article 50 was never, ever meant to be implemented.”

However, despite her disappointed with the result of the referendum and concerns about the effects of leaving the EU, Ms Stihler saw overturning the result, as some politicians and activist have suggested, as unlikely.

Speaking on the subject, Ms Stihler said, “As a democrat, it’s very difficult when referendums have happened and you disagree with the result, however I will still fundamentally make the case about why it’s important to be part of the European single market and it’s important to be part of this European Union in terms of maintaining influence in a global world, my views will never change on that because I advocate for that and I think it’s important.

“But the reality of where we are at the moment is that we’re unclear what the government’s negotiating position is other than that they don’t want freedom of movement.

“As it currently stands, I don’t think there will be a second referendum on the European question and I think the best that we could get is something like the Norwegian model, if we don’t want to be part of the EU. But if you talk about hard Brexit that’s very, very unlikely.

“We’re looking for an optimal solution in a sub-optimal environment.

“Because actually, what we have at the moment is the best deal that we can possibly have and we’re about to destroy that.

“It’s tragic for the economy and it’s tragic for both Scotland and the United Kingdom.”

Ms Stihler also spoke to The Saint about her belief in the connection between the forces that droves the vote to leave the EU and those now driving Donald Trump in America, as well as her disgust at the Republican nominee’s numerous offensive statements.

Article 50 was never, ever meant to be implemented

“It shows you that sometimes you think misogyny is going, we’ve fought that battle, and then we discover that we’ve got to keep fighting the battle for equality,” she said.

Going on, she added, “Donald Trump’s comments are something quite disgusting, I find them particularly offensive.

“We have to work harder and try and make sure that those views are not acceptable in 2016, that women are equal to men, and sadly we still have to defend that equality.”

“I remember the day after the EU referendum, having a conversation where I was making the case that Donald Trump and the support behind him was not the same and the American students I was speaking to were saying ‘Catherine, it is the same’, the anti-establishment feelings, being against the elites while being a member of the elite themselves, being populistic, blaming people, blaming immigrants, and they were right, it is the same rhetoric that was used here that is being used there.

Ms Stihler went on to express her hopes that America would elect its first female president, “It will come as no surprise that I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton, and I would love to see in my life time the first female president of the US, and my children are American citizens and I would really like my two boys see the first female president, I really would.

“I think it sends a signal, to the world, and also in the UK we have our second female prime minister, we have our female first minister in Scotland, so from a gender perspective I would definitely like to see a woman in the White House.

Indeed, the subject of gender equality is one particularly relevant to Ms Stihler. As previously stated, she only the University’s second female Rector, she is currently Scotland’s only woman MEP and during her time at St Andrews she was one of the few women elected as President of the Students’ Association.

However when discussing her status as a potential model for other young women, she is again quick to note the work of others.

We’re looking for an optimal solution in a sub-optimal environment

“We’re very lucky actually because we’ve got, not just the Principal and the Rector, but you’ve also got the President of the Students’ Association and also the senior governor of the University. So you’ve kind of got four women at the moment and I think that’s just great. I think it’s great to have positive role models,” she said.

Going on, she added, “It’s great to see that you can rise to the top in an organisation, you can work hard and achieve things.

“It’s a moment in St Andrews history to have all these four senior positions, representing students, the governors, the Principal and the Rector, occupied by women.”

Ms Stihler’s term as Rector ends in 2018 (with the new Rector elected in 2017) and the Prime Minister has confirmed that the UK will no longer send MEPs to Europe after 2019, so she will also step down from that position as well. The Saint asked what Ms Stihler planned to do next.

“Well, when one door closes, another door opens. I think it’s key to be open to new opportunities, at the moment I’m just trying my best to do what I’m doing as an MEP and obviously I’ve still got a year left as Rector, and I will be doing my utmost to fulfil that role,” she said.

Would she run for a second term as Rector? At this point Ms Stihler hesitated and then said that she had not given it much thought – but did not rule out re-running in 2017.

The Saint also asked how Ms Stihler balances the role of Rector with that of her family and also being an MEP for Scotland (indeed, this interview had to be conducted over the phone as Ms Stihler continued her work in Brussels).

Current University Rector and Labour MEP, Catherine Stihler
Photo: Yelim Lee

“I have wonderful support in my husband, and my parents who help me a lot, and I’m very, very lucky to have that support around me and a family that really supports me and believes in what I’m doing,” she said.

Despite her pessimistic outlook for many of the major issues in the world that we had discussed, Ms Stihler remained hopeful about the future of the University and St Andrews’ students, finishing the interview by stating that, “Our students make our university, they make it what it is. I think with us being open-minded, international and outward looking, I think it stands St Andrews as a good place.

“St Andrews presents such fantastic opportunities for students and I was very lucky to have had them as a student and though times are difficult, we will pull through.”

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