I wrote this post for the website The Conversation, and it was first published on that site
Students at the University of Glasgow have just elected their 127th rector, Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower. It seems fairly unlikely that Snowden will participate in the university’s governance or in the task of representing students. Then again, his election has brought global attention well beyond what his very respectable predecessor, former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, was ever able to secure. He is the first American to fill this position, but he will almost certainly not be expecting a message of congratulations from the US government.
Glasgow University’s students have form. On previous occasions they have elected other people who were unable to travel to Glasgow, including South African activists Winnie Mandela and Albert Lutuli, and Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu. But the Glasgow rectorship is not just a haven for international dissidents. It is worth pointing out that students have more generally elected pillars of the establishment such as Quintin Hogg (later Lord Hailsham), BBC Director General Lord Reith, and the afore-mentioned Charles Kennedy.
So what is this all about? Is the role of rector so unimportant that anyone, no matter how absent from duties they are likely to be, is a good choice? Maybe the importance of the role lies somewhere else. Glasgow University graduate and prominent broadcast journalist Andrew Neil tweeted: “Whistleblower Edward Snowden has been elected as rector of Glasgow University following a student vote. My alma mater.” He then added: “Sometimes you need a working rector. Sometimes you need to make a statement.”
What exactly is the role of a rector in the Scottish university stem? Although in both Glasgow and Aberdeen there had been rectors prior to this, the office was given a formal legal status by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858, which described the rector as “the ordinary president of the university”. In 1889, further legislation provided for their election by students, or in the case of the University of Edinburgh, by staff and students. The legislation applied (and still applies) to all universities in existence at the time: St Andrews, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Subsequently the position of rector was also established in the University of Dundee. Other Scottish universities do not have a rector. Except in the case of Dundee, the rector is entitled to chair governing body meetings, but generally does not do so.
The original intention behind establishing the office of rector was to secure some level of student and lay, or non-academic, participation in the running of universities. Today that original purpose may seem less urgent. Students have since been given direct representation on university governing bodies, and lay members are now usually in the majority on these bodies. Perhaps partly because of that, students started to elect what could be described as vanity candidates. They were chosen because of their celebrity status, or as political figures who were in no position to play any active role. To avoid this trend, a Rector’s Charter was drawn up in 2007, which commits rectors to performing their function for a specified number of days every month, to be available to students and to attend the vast majority of governing body meetings.
In the light of Snowden’s election, how should we evaluate the office? Does it still serve a purpose? When I chaired the review of higher education governance in Scotland in 2011, we asked all the universities to provide us with views on the role and its usefulness. Those universities that had rectors, including Glasgow, suggested that the role should continue. All those that didn’t have one indicated they didn’t want one. And so the system has remained as it was.
To those who sometimes bemoan the apparent disengagement by students from the global political concerns of the day, a high profile and energetically conducted campaign to recognise a controversial political figure may seem like a refreshing return to the days of student campaigns for something other than cheaper catering. On the other hand, to those who want to see an effective mechanism for representing student interests, a rector who is confined to some unidentified place in Russia may not seem best placed to deliver the goods.
In the end the rector will be, or not be, whatever students want. Those universities that have rectors will probably continue to find that each term of office has the capacity to be very different.
Snowden will not be holding the management of the University of Glasgow to account. To some, his association with the university will be an embarrassment. But every generation of students must have a right to make a statement in some way they regard as appropriate. Whether the rest of us really approve is, I suspect, not the most important consideration.