Scotland’s Celebrity Rectors: The Chosen Ones of the Undergrad Vox Pops

Popular Culture, Tertiary Ed

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.

The Ancient Universities of Scotland (Aberdeen)
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?’,].

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.

Nero as Rector
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)]. 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.

Rector for Silly Walks
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’,]. 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,].

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❈).

The ambitious & frugal young Mr Brown – his first leg on the political ladder
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)].

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

When Bill Met Yang in Lintong

Popular Culture, Social History, Travel

If ever you find yourself touring China, one of the first places you will want to visit is Xi’an, home of the Museum of Terracotta Warriors and Horses. Whilst being driven to the venue from Xi’an Xianyang Airport or perhaps from your city hotel after a look at Xi’an’s impressive City Walls, the chances are that your Chinese tour guide will bring up the topic of Bill Clinton’s 1998 visit. The celebrated occasion has entered into local folklore and Chinese guides are quick to pass on the anecdote of the US President to the international tourists in their group. I’ll get to that story soon enough but first some background on the Terracotta Warriors.

Terracotta Territory
The whole phenomena of the Terracotta Warriors has its origin in March 1974 when several dirt-poor peasant farmers (thought to be seven in number) in Xiyang village in Lintong County, were digging for water in the dry, forbidding countryside 35km east of Xi’an. One of the farmers, Yang Zhifa, struck something hard with his hoe which he thought was a bronze relic of some kind. Digging a bit deeper he discovered the object had the form of a shoulder and torso. The other farmers, fearful of Buddhist superstitions, urged Yang to rebury it so as not to offend the ancestors (ghost lore has been commonplace in the eastern Xi’an region for centuries). Yang was unperturbed and took the dismembered clay warrior to the Lintong Museum. Before long archaeologists from Beijing were swarming all over the site and so commenced a massive state-run excavation (of three pits) which has unearthed over the course of the last 40 years, an army of terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots, of what is the Mausoleum of the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi who unified China c. 221BC (imperial Qin Dynasty).

The 'aircraft hangar' of terracotta warriors
The ‘aircraft hangar’ of terracotta warriors
The government eventually expropriated the land from the farmers to give free rein to the excavations, effectively destroying the Yang village. The dispossessed villagers were inadequately compensated for the disruption to their lives. By the early 1990s, after years of meticulous and arduous preparation work, the site area was opened as a museum and rapidly became a modern wonder of the world and a tourist mecca. The permanent exhibition proved to be a great little supplementary ‘earner’ for local Communist Party officials and many enterprising business people also profited enormously from the financial opportunities. This propitious good fortune has not been shared by the statues’ discoverers or by the Yang community as a whole. In fact Yang’s fellow farmers blamed him for the loss of their plots and livelihoods, and he was ostracised by his neighbours. Other misfortune followed for the community, two of the farmer Yangs died only in their fifties due to impoverished circumstance and another, Wang Puhzi, hanged himself. To the farmers who had feared that the feng shui of the location would be disturbed by digging up the area, these adversities confirmed in their minds that it had been cursed.

Over in Washington DC President Bill Clinton, in between leading the “Free World”, had been following the unfolding archaeological story of the Xi’an terracotta army with great interest. So, on a scheduled state visit to Beijing in 1998 Clinton requested a side trip to Xi’an to see the terracotta marvels in situ. The Chinese authorities, sensing a PR coup in the making, arranged for Mr Yang to be on hand to meet the American president, and the (presumably) illiterate farmer was taught a few words of English to greet the president with. Unfortunately Yang got very nervous at the prospect of meeting the US leader and when introduced to Clinton on the day, instead of saying “How are you?”, what came out of Yang’s mouth in his halting English was “Who are you?” to which Clinton responded, “I’m Hillary’s husband!” The flustered Mr Yang replied,”Me too.” Everybody laughed.

The encounter between president and peasant farmer generated a second anecdote: at the meeting Clinton asked Mr Yang for his autograph. Yang, who could neither read nor write, simply drew three circles on a piece of paper. Slightly uncomfortable moment … not least for the embarrassed Chinese officials in attendance. Consequently, the local authorities later sent the uneducated Yang for calligraphy lessons. After which Yang was given a job by the government in the Terracotta Warriors tourist shop. His task was to sit at a table all day signing books on the Terracotta Warriors (leading to his being called by some people, “China’s First Professional Signer”). It should be added that Yang Zhifa subsequently disputed the inference of this story circulated by a Chinese newspaper in 2002, contending that he in fact had a primary school education. Yang sued the newspaper and was eventually awarded damages [Yu Fei, ‘Living with the Terra-cotta Army’, (Consulate-General, Peoples Republic of China in Houston),].

If you venture into the Emperor Qin Museum shop in Xi’an, as I did three years ago, you will still see the unsmiling Mr Yang, inscribing his signature on the inside of countless coffee table books. Although he looks distracted and bored in his confinement, he is ever vigilant, on the lookout for feral tourists trying to snap his photograph, something he is peculiarly adverse to. Whilst he was looking the other way (or so I thought) I tried to grab a surreptitious photo of Yang from the side but just as I was about to, the sour-faced septuagenarian suddenly raised a sign which warned against the taking of photos and videos. Wandering further afield around the complex you may chance other individuals purporting to be Mr Yang. It’s quite an industry in Xi’an! In one building near the entrance to the complex there is Yang Xi’an who passes himself off the discoverer of the warriors (although his banner actually says “the discover of the warriors”), displaying a photo of himself posing with Clinton as proof of his credentials. It transpires that this Mr Yang was in fact the manager of a Xi’an factory making replicas of the warriors at the time of Clinton’s 1998 visit – this explains the photo taken when “Slick Willie” stopped off at the factory on route to the terracotta museum.

Chinese emperor & army for sale!
Chinese emperor & army for sale!
In the glow of world attention being lavished on the terracotta army discoveries and the recognition bestowed on Mr Yang, it is not surprising that the other three surviving farmers from the 1974 archaeological find wanted to get in on the act. Yang Quany was also given a spot in the museum signing books for a small stipend and began promoting himself as “the discoverer of the treasures”. The remaining two Yangs followed suit. Yang Zhifa however discredits his fellow Lintong farmers’ motives and insists that it is he who is primus intra pares (first among equals) in discovering the Emperor Qin relics.

And it doesn’t stop there by any measure. Zhao Kangmin, retired curator of the nearby Lintong Museum, has made his case for recognition as the real discoverer. The way Mr Zhao tells it, after the initial finding Yang Zhifa brought the fragment of the terracotta relic first to him at his museum and that he went back to investigate the discovery, and later he reconstructed the first terracotta warrior and horse. Zhao argues that he was the one who had the expertise to grasp the significance of the cultural relics, and that “seeing” as Yang and the others merely did, “doesn’t mean discovering”. You’ll find Zhao, despite being retired, most days at the Lintong Museum where he has set up a small display of the terracotta figures. Zhao spends the day signing postcards for tourists, on the cards he writes, very deliberately: “Zhao Kangmin, the first to discover, restore, appreciate, name and excavate terra-cotta warriors” [Ibid].

imageWhilst the Lintong farmers haven’t made much money from discovering (or being associated with the discovery of) the terracotta army, the same can be said of the workers who did most of the hard physical work of unearthing and restoring the statues. Most of those recruited to curator Yuan Zhongyi’s archaeological team found themselves working round the year with only a break at the time of the Spring Festival holiday for a wage of only 1.72 yuan (US $0.28) a day in 1976 [Zhao Xu, ‘Yang Zhifa, 76, soldiers on amid terracotta warriors’, China Daily USA,].

Back at the Qin Terracotta Warriors and Horses Museum, as the fame and popularity of Emperor Qin’s Mausoleum grows, more impostors continue to spring up. These “fake discoverers” of the warriors were like Yang Xi’an, not even present at the discovery of the relics in 1974 (some are not even old enough to have been there!). A manager of one of the gift shops admitted that the complex shops hire men who fraudulently passed themselves off as discoverers of the relics to facilitate the sale of terracotta warrior books by the retailer [Simon Parry, ‘Curse of the Warriors’, South China Morning Post, 15 Sept 2007,].

“The three in the middle just moved!”
Meanwhile, in the excavation pit at Lintong, Emperor Qin’s life-sized army of clay statues continues to grow. Archaeologists working in pit Nō 2 recently made a discovery which might yield another 1,400 warriors, archers, horses and charioteers (and 89 chariots of war) [‘China’s Terracotta Army has new recruits’, Daily Mail, 6 May 2015,]. Chinese officials have speculated that there may be around 6,000 terracotta warriors at the site still to be excavated … ensuring no doubt that there will be ongoing opportunities for discoverer-impostors in the future.