A Rector is a type of office-holder pertaining to both the ecclesiastical and the academic realm. It is in this second context of the term, that of academe, that is the focus of this blog. The word ‘rector’ itself derives from the Latin regere (Ruler), and in the 17th century it signified one who governed a city, state or region. In the contemporary world of universities it is widely employed in Europe, Latin America, Russia, Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia and the Middle East. Its meaning varies from place to place, in some of these the term rector is often used in the sense of chancellor, ie, the executive head of a university but much more likely it denotes the ceremonial head.
In the English speaking world the rector is not a common office in the university hierarchy, the exception to this being Scotland where the post dates back to the 16th century. Each of the four ‘ancient’ universities of Scotland (St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh) plus Dundee – all have the office of rector, in some cases it is called, more grandly, lord rector. Scottish rectors are elected by the student body for a three year term, although at the University of Edinburgh rectors are still elected by both students and staff.
In the sphere of higher education the duties of rectors vary from institution to institution but broadly they are there to represent the interests of students in the wider university context on various governing bodies, eg, in Scotland they might also chair the University Court, the highest governing council of the university. One way they directly represent students is in an ombudsmen’s role, being a forum for students to air their grievances and complaints and a conduit to have their issues addressed within the university. Other duties of a rector might include participating in convocation ceremonies [‘What does the Rector even do?’, http://queensu.ca/rector/blog/].
In past centuries the Scottish tradition was for noblemen as rectors, titled gentlemen with a assortment of names sounding like variations on the “8th Earl of Cumbleyheathwaite”. By the 20th century the post tended to be filled by high achievers from business, politics, the civil service, the military, and the occasional notable clergyman. In the interwar period St Andrews set a precedent, by electing inventor Guglielmo Marconi, North Pole explorer Fridtjof Nansen and writer Rudyard Kipling to the post. After WWII Edinburgh University followed suit by electing the popular British actors Alastair Sim and James Robertson Justice, having earlier given the post to Churchill and a host of other MPs.
By the late sixties and the seventies celebrity rectors were starting to become a feature of the academic landscape. Students at Dundee University elected actor and “Renaissance Man” of letters Peter Ustinov for a second term which seems a measure of his popularity … perhaps this was not universally the case however. In his memoirs Dear Me, the rector emeritus expressed stinging criticisms of the arts students at Dundee for having the temerity to protest vociferously against the Vietnam War and militarism and authoritarianism in general, whilst under his watch. The peeved thespian compared them unfavourably to the University’s political and socially apathetic but scholastically conscientious engineering students.
Other colourful rectors followed at Dundee. Actor and omnipresent TV personality Stephen Fry was a popular rector in the 1990s, a popularity apparently not tarnished by Fry’s recent admissions that he used cocaine and Ecstasy during his rectorship at the University [Reported in The Courier (UK, 14 Oct. 2014) www.thecourier.co.uk]. NB: the good burghers of the Dundee University community, if perturbed by this revelation, should take comfort in Fry’s disclosure in his memoirs that he also snorted coke on a visit to Buckingham Palace, so Dundee is in lofty company. The incumbent rector of Dundee University in 2015 is another celebrated Hollywood actor, Brian Cox, a Dundee local whose two terms are incident free to this point.
Dundee students may have expressed a preference for actors as their rectors but this has not exclusively been the case. In the 1970s they selected chef, broadcaster and politician Clement Freud (grandson of the father of Psychobabbling, Sigmund Freud). Clem Freud later had a second turn as rector, this time at St Andrews University where he edged out polarising feminist icon Germaine Greer in the ballot for the job.
St Andrews’ most high-profile rector in recent history was comic actor John Cleese (1970-73), the “Minister for Silly Walks” himself. Cleese proved a popular rector at St Andrews and his staunchly anti-Vietnam War speeches struck a receptive cord among politicised students of the day. Cleese was an active participant in University activities and allayed any fears there may have been about his whacky persona bringing discredit on the office with any “Monty Python” antics [Cinema St Andrews, ‘John Cleese elected Rector of University of St Andrews’, www.cinemastandrews.org.uk]. Actors and television personalities have been the preferred flavour of the St Andrews’ student body, numbering Tim Brooke-Taylor, Frank Muir and Nicholas Parsons amongst their “media-sourced” rectors.
Whereas Dundee University’s preference has been for actors as rectors, Glasgow University students in recent times have made more bolder political choices. The Glasgow rectors have ranged from ANC (African National Congress) anti-Apartheid activists, Albert Lutuli and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, to establishment vilified ‘whistleblowers’ Mordechai Vanunu and Edward Snowden (the current rector). The selection of these individuals were only symbolic choices as rectors (meant as a student statement of support and solidarity with international figures and causes) as none of the people were free to travel to Scotland to take up their posts. Accordingly the office of rector has been effectively unoccupied during these tenures.
A recent working(sic) rector voted in by matriculated Glasgow students was the actor and journalist Ross Kemp. Kemp’s term was truncated as a result of an abysmal performance in the post (repeated failure to attend important university events like the “freshers’ welcome”). The Students Representative Council at Glasgow carried a vote of no confidence in him and forced his resignation[‘Kemp quits university post’, BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk].
Aberdeen University students have been a little more restrained than their southern Scottish university counterparts in seeking out the very famous for rector, opting in the main for locally known identities. The University hasn’t steered clear entirely of rectors with celebrity status. In the early 2000s it had Clarissa Dickson Wright, TV cook and writer, one half of the popular “Two Fat Ladies” series, as its rector (though perceptive gender equality enumerators would have already noted that women have been numerically disadvantaged in the bestowing of the post of rector across all the institutions❈).
Overall, opinion north of the River Tweed has been mixed about the merits of celebrity rectors. Those who support the trend and try to explain its appeal, point to the growing dissatisfaction of students with party politics, and the perception that politicians are bland and dour and lacking in dynamic, like recent British PM Gordon Brown who was rector of Edinburgh University back in the early 1970s – having been elected to the office whilst still being a student (unusual). Entertainers and media personalities on the other hand, the theory goes, can add cache to the university, attracting positive publicity and much-needed funding … and they can bring a fresh, outsider’s perspective to what are traditional organisations.
Of course how successful or otherwise the celebrity rector is comes down to the individual. A factor in how much benefit the celebrity can be as rector is how much time (and energy) the incumbent can give to the position. Rectors with heavy demands on their time due to their full-time “day jobs” will be restricted in what they can give to the office. Also, if a rector attracts adverse publicity during his or her tenure (eg, Fry and Kemp), by association it could reflect badly on the institution [‘After this soap, your next role will be a rector’, Times Higher Education, (22 Jun. 2001) www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/feature].
The process for the election of Scottish rectors is open and quite democratic. Only 20 signatures are required to nominate someone for rector, which can give rise to surprising nominations. For example a Dundee student nominated his pet rat for the post, which might be viewed by some as trivialising and ridiculing the office. A nominee in 1928 for rector of St Andrews, coming clear out of right field, was Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini. Had the Fascist head of state been successful in his bid it might have been interesting to see what if anything he would have done with the office[ibid.].
So, an academic post with the potential to maximise publicity for financially-struggling universities in Scotland, I am left to ponder the obvious thought that comes to me … why wasn’t Billy Connolly on anyone’s short-list when they were putting forward the next round of nominees for rectors?
❈ this comes as no surprise but women have been under-represented as university rectors even in more socially-inclusive, recent times