Who is the rector?

Sara Fay explains the tradition of the rector of St Andrews.

Rector Catherine Stihler at her investiture. Photo by Terry Lee

The University of St. Andrews is historically known for its passionate involvement in elections and in its own future. For a university that is known to send its students into the world to be leaders in their fields – politicians, theologians, masters of science or the arts, members of society that aim to do more than just inhabit it – this makes sense.

One such election that has historically so prompted student involvement would be for a position entitled Rector. The Rector serves as the link between the University, led by the Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone, and those students.

Rectors are elected to the University Court every three years by the students of the university. Their job is to represent the aims and interests of students, and assisting with their goals and development.

The University court is where the highest governing body of the University, and so makes or has influence over, almost all the important decisions that affect our lives as students. Officially the Lord Rector of the University of St Andrews, the position is most often referred to as simply the ‘Rector’. It’s easier to write on name tags. While the position of Rector may not have been around as long as the university it serves in, it has, by all means, stood the test of time. The position dates back to the 1800’s and only exists at the four ancient universities of Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, St Andrews, as well as the University of Dundee. Since then Rectors have been chosen from senior politicians, statesmen, benefactors, writers, military heroes, anyone who is decided to be a hero to be emulated by the students, chosen by the students themselves.

While until the mid 19th century Rectors were required to be a minister of the church of Scotland, harking back to the religious origins of the university, students eventually decided they wanted a different type of representative. First, in 1825, they would try to elect Sir Walter Scott – a result which was immediately declared null and void. However, the push for change could not be stopped so easily and the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 would eventually enshrine the institution of the Rector in its modern form into Scots law.

Sir Ralph Anstruther, the 4th Baronet, would be the first to hold the position under this law, in 1858. The famous industrialist Andrew Carnegie would also take on the role, statesmen who were elected include Lord Avebury or the Earl of Rosebury. Famous writers to have been chosen include J M Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, Jon Christiaan Smuts, or Marchese Marconi. Field Marshall Douglas Haig would even , More recent public figures to be elected include comedian John Cleese, journalist Andrew Neil, and the whistleblower Stanley Adams.

Many of these great men, since, until recently, they were men, would appear to make a speech at the beginning of their term before disappearing for the next three years, working behind the scenes.

Times have been changing and the university has too. Rectors can also now be women, as demonstrated by our current Rector Catherine Stihler. They also have a bit of different approach now, endeavoring to make themselves more available to the students that they represent, notably through the Rector’s Assessor.

The Rector’s Assessor is a voluntary student position and a full voting member of the University Court, they also sit on the Student Representative Council (SRC). The position was created under John Cleese – who served as Rector from 1970 to 1973.

The assessor’s duties include operating as a liaison from the Rector to the student body and representing the Rector when necessary at formal meetings. The Rector not only represents students’ joint voices on the court but also aides the students individually.

The Rector’s fund, was created to do just this. In order to help students further their future careers the fund provides £500 to help with costs for summer internships already lined up. The fund has aimed to help around fifteen students a year in past years and will continue to do so in the future. Since rectorial elections are every three years – this new semester will mark the next one.

The nomination period will be from 2 October to 4 October. To nominate a candidate involves submitting a 250 word statement by them, photo, and nomination form with twenty student signatures – all students are welcome to participate. On 5 October candidates will be checked and announced and on 6 October  the six day campaign trail will begin with results announced a week later. Once the new Rector is chosen the famous Installation process begins.

A historic tradition, the Installation kicks off with the ‘Drag’ where the rector is brought to the town by a novel method of transport – from vintage cars to wooden carts – along designated route in town where 12-15 student groups are waiting to introduce themselves, their societies, and what they aim to do for the university. They give gifts, and have a drink with their new representative.

These elections are important and are something that every student should get involved in. The position of Rector should be filled with a person of outstanding qualifications and one that demonstrates the dedication that they are willing to show to the student body. We have a chance to bring about real change at this university, our home while we live here, and while we can’t all serve on the Court, we can ensure that our voices are heard on it.

Luckily, for a university that takes elections and its historical roots and traditions as seriously as it takes costumed foam fights, finding the right voice shouldn’t be a problem.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.