It was fascinating last week to watch St Andrews alumni Dr Fiona Hill and David Holmes giving testimony to the US House Intelligence Committee. They follow in a proud tradition of St Andrews students and alumni, going back to the middle ages, who are willing to speak truth to power. Sadly for some of their predecessors, the cobblestones of St Andrews bear witness that the University has not always appreciated such boldness. The University appreciates boldness when it is directed elsewhere but not when it is used to shine light on its own shortcomings.
From the first day you arrive as students in St Andrews, you are encouraged to participate actively in the governance of the University. You are encouraged to challenge and question; you elect sabbatical officers of the Students Association, school presidents, the Rector and many others; you are directly represented on the University Court; and your voice is heard at every level of the University.
It is not well known, but the Universities (Scotland) Acts of 1858-1966 grant you the life-long right to continue to be involved in University governance after graduation when you become members of the University’s General Council.
However, this year the University has executed a massive power grab which disenfranchises you, along with Dr Fiona Hill and David Holmes and tens of thousands of your academic parents, grandparents etc., – alumni and senior academics, from choosing who speaks in your name on Court after you graduate.
For the first time in over 160 years, as you walk across the stage at graduation, a tap of the biretum on your head and the words ‘et super te’ will end your ability collectively to help govern your University. Court has seized control of the nomination of alumni assessors and will act unilaterally to appoint your future assessors for you. It is not good governance for Court to select those who are supposed to be nominated by a separate governance body of the University. (University Ordinance 132 Part1(j)). It will increase the propensity for groupthink and echo chamber effects to take hold. This move should ring governance alarm bells everywhere.
In a remarkable example of Orwellian doublespeak, Court states as a principle in the minutes of this decision on 14th June 2019 that ‘General Council should be seen to have control over the nomination process’. What is clear, is that only Court will control the nomination process.
Ironically, while asserting another principle that their decision ‘should be distanced from any factional interest’, Court fails to recognise that it is by definition a tiny faction (0.01%) of General Council. Court’s actions undermine the very principles Court seeks to uphold. Such duplicity is unbecoming of the finest University in Scotland.
As a member of Court, I supported a potential change from election of assessors to a skills-based selection process. I was assured by Court that it intended to engage ‘constructively with the GCBC [General Council Business Committee] to co-produce this’ (Court minutes 5/4/2019) and the process would support the aforementioned principles. Yet the new process has been imposed by Court; Court alone chooses the assessors; no participation from the Convener, the Business Committee or the wider General Council in the selection of your future assessors is to be permitted.
It was for the above reasons that I resigned, on principle, from the University Court.
I have no doubt that there are many St Andrews alumni among those peacefully protesting in Hong Kong for democracy, seeking the right to select their own leaders rather than having them imposed upon them from Beijing. May I encourage you to follow their example and that of Dr Hill, Mr Holmes and of many generations of St Andrews graduates: Always speak up when you see injustice.