The Lord Rector: pointless or powerful?

Credit: Kate Snowdon

Grace Michael

With the recent final announcement of this year’s Rectorial nominations, and the election to be held from the 20-21 March, there is certainly a feeling of instability in regards to who the next University Rector will be. With an overall sense of uncertainty within the student body as to the predicted result of the race, there is no one clear candidate seeming to be entirely favoured.

Many students simply do not know who the Rector is, or what they do. Ultimately, they represent the student body. They do so within the University, voicing complaints and acting to ensure the necessary change students request. They also represent the students outside of the University, acting as a symbolic figurehead, as they usually hold a high profile. For these reasons, it is imperative that students know who some of our previous Rectors have been and what they have stood for, in order to inform decisions when the vote finally occurs, and the person who will represent them is decided.

Between 2004 and 2008, the Israeli nuclear secrets whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu held the Rector position. Vanunu risked imprisonment in order to retain contact with Glasgow students, delivering an overall message of faith and compassion for humanity as the crux of his Rectorial speech. Urging students to “act on behalf of the human race”, Vanunu impresses the importance of using university resources to “act as one globe, one race, one humankind”. Perhaps this kindness, positivity and complete acceptance and inclusiveness of all students of the University is something that a Rector should stand for. Despite personal risk, Vanunu spoke out to voice the opinions and complaints of those who could not, encompassing not only bravery, but also sincere humanity.

Actor Richard Wilson was elected as Rector in 1996. Wilson clearly believed that the role of the Rector was not only a great responsibility, but also a great honour; that there was a certain feeling of magnanimity towards him by his election. Wilson believed that Glasgow University is a “family”, declaring that he was looking forward to “serving it to the best of [his] ability”. Clearly, Wilson believed that the position of Rector is not one meant for the personal gain of the elected, but a means to improve the University and society as a whole.

In 1971, the trade unionist and MP Jimmy Reid was elected; his Rectorial speech being described as “40 years ahead of its time”. Titled “Alienation”, the address highlighted the feeling of disparity and anger within society, this feeling being one that came about as a direct result of the speech’s very title. Reid described how society “partially de-humanises some people” and therefore, “makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centered and grasping”. Reid’s speech is just as pertinent today as it was 40 years ago; the same problem of Alienation is arguably something which can be clearly seen within situations such as the refugee crisis, the election of Trump, and even within smaller communities, such as here in Glasgow. It is important to recognise that it is within the capability of the student body to elect a Rector who will recognise this problem and use their position to defuse anger; or to elect someone who will encourage this hostility and Alienation. Reid concluded that, “this great University of Glasgow should be in the vanguard: initiating changes and setting the example for others to follow”. Perhaps our Rector will be the centrepiece in the students’ decision of whether this example will be one of inclusion, equality and compassion, or one of egotistical cruelty under the guise of satire.

John Bell became Rector in 1977, becoming the first and only student Rector, ensuring representation of students within “higher up” university proceedings. Bell previously served as President for the SRC – during his presidency he ensured that women were involved in the running of the GUU, something which had previously only been available to men. This fight for equality continued on in his Rectorship as he strove to represent each and every student of the University. In an interview with The Glasgow Guardian, Bell stressed the importance for modesty as a the Rectorial candidate. Bell stated that the Rector should not become so in order to “advance his or her public profile” as it is “not the point” of the Rectorship to do so. This point, for Bell, is to “represent the students”: the Rector must not “abuse the situation in order to attract attention to [one]self”. A similar message that the Rector should be a useful and important figure within the University, and someone who will truly represent the students, was heard in Bell’s Rectorial address. Bell described his belief in “the power of symbols”, in the sense that the Rector himself is a symbol; an embodiment of the values and sentiments that the students of Glasgow wish to uphold. Here we can view the students’ choice of Rector as a reflection of the student body themselves. Therefore, if we are to follow Bell’s philosophy, we must ask before casting a vote – does this candidate emulate the characteristics I also wish to emulate? We must choose a Rector who will not only represent the students within the University, but also on a larger scale, to society as a whole.

Throughout history and throughout the 116 Rectors that the students of the University of Glasgow have elected to represent them, the Rector has been a person with a goal for the positive development of Glasgow and, overall, for society. The takeaway message from many of the Rectorial addresses is that it is a great honour for these candidates to serve the student body; that they themselves will endeavour to uphold human freedoms and rights, and strive for greater equality, compassion and understanding on the students’ behalf. The Rector, if indeed they are to be viewed as a symbol, should uphold the principles which the student body also uphold. We can only hope that these principles cause positive change for future of the citizens of Glasgow and the rest of the world. If we are truly, as the University’s motto suggests, “world changers”, then we must also have a world changer represent us. It can only be hoped that they will change the world for the better.


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