Alistair Moffat, the University’s outgoing rector, has not been nominated for an honorary degree and is only the second rector not to have the award conferred on him in recognition of his time in office.
This break with tradition, which normally sees the outgoing rector honoured at the St Andrew’s day graduation ceremony marks the end of a hostile relationship between Mr Moffat and the University. In March 2012, the former director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was criticised by the University after he threatened to sue two scientists for libel, prompting University principal, Professor Louise Richardson, to tell Mr Moffat to separate his personal and University business.
Professor David Balding and Professor Mark Thomas, University College London (UCL) evolutionary geneticists, were threatened with legal action after they questioned the accuracy of Mr Moffat’s genetics company, BritainsDNA.
In a letter to the two scientists sent in March 2012, Professor Richardson said: “As freedom of academic inquiry is the core principle of any university the Senate strongly disapproves of such action [threatening legal action].”
Mr Moffat was taken to task by the two scientists after he appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme and claimed that his company had discovered the grandson of Eve and nine descendants of the Queen of Sheba. “It’s laughable how wrong it is,” Dr Vincent Plagnol, another UCL scientist, told The Saint at the time.
However, what had begun as an academic debate saw Mr Moffat issue threats of legal action against the academics, who told The Saint they felt intimidated and that their academic freedoms had been threatened.
Mr Moffat told The Saint at the time that what they called academic debate were actually grossly defamatory comments. “It is a complete untruth to state that we used legal action to suppress or inhibit scientific debate in any way,” he said.
“Professor Balding defamed our company and we asked our solicitors to ask him not to repeat that defamation. That is all. We welcome debate, and while we disagree with Professor Thomas’ views profoundly, he is of course entitled to hold them. What he is not entitled to do is to state untruths, and that is what he has done,” he added.
However, in her letter to the two scientists, Professor Richardson said: “The University of St Andrews expects all members of our community, whether they are staff, students or office holders, to respect fully the principle of academic freedom to promote unhindered academic inquiry at all times.”
Mr Moffat faced further criticism after Professor Thomas wrote a scathing assessment of Britains DNA for The Guardian. “Perhaps it is harmless fun to speculate beyond the facts, armed with exciting new DNA technologies? Not really. It costs unwitting customers of the genetic ancestry industry a substantial amount of hard-earned cash,” Professor Thomas wrote.
Nature magazine produced an editorial entitled The Right to Speak Out, denouncing Mr Moffat for resorting to legal threats to silence the scientists. “Moffat may perhaps have been bluffing about his legal threats (he and his lawyers did not respond to queries from Nature) but under present laws, just the threat of a lawsuit is often enough to silence reasonable scientific criticism,” it said.
Mr Moffat is only the second rector not to receive an honorary degree and the first not to be nominated. Donald Findlay, who served as rector between 1993 and 1999, was refused the award by the Academic Senate.
Mr Findlay resigned as vice-chairman of Rangers after he was captured on video singing well known sectarian songs following the Scottish Cup Final between Rangers and Celtic.
He was originally awarded the honour after he was nominated by Nick Bibby, then president of the Students’ Association. However, the decision split opinion. Times Higher Education reported at the time that some felt that honouring Mr Findlay would conflict with any institution that backs equal opportunities and non-discrimination.
A University spokesperson said: “A number of senators have expressed concerns in writing regarding recent events. As a result of that, the issue may be debated by the senate when it meets later this month” Mr Moffat could not be reached for comment.