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"Disappointing": Rector's Reckoning

The Saint can reveal that University Rector Leyla Hussein OBE has only visited St Andrews for a week since her election victory in 2020. The campaigner and activist has also not been present at any University Court meetings since her formal installation in April 2022. This has led her former Rector’s Assessor, Stella Maris, to describe her time in office since her formal elevation to the role as “disappointing”, and to the conclusion St Andrews students deserve better, whilst The President of the Student Association Barry Will states she was “not engaged” during her time as Rector.

The women’s rights campaigner swept to victory in the election of 2020, defeating Dr Fiona Hill, among others, and had a manifesto which put her presence and desire to be in St Andrews at the forefront. This included a section of her manifesto entitled “showing up and following through”, which emphasised her being “willing and able to travel to St Andrews when needed”. Nevertheless, during Hussein’s time as Rector, she has only spent a week in St Andrews: when she was here for her ceremonial installation into the position.

The Anti FGM activist began her term with great fanfare telling The Times following her election victory that, “ The fact an old, traditional establishment is voting in a black woman to this position really says that things are happening . . . There is hope. Things are changing. Not everybody will feel the same, but for me, this sends a really big message”. This was followed by her tweeting, on hearing of the result, “Meet Your New Rector St Andrew University [sic], I'm excited to have been elected as the new Rector for St Andrews University; history has being made today [sic], I'm the first black women to hold this position [sic].thank you to my fantastic campaigning team [sic]. Change is coming”.

Key to her election victory was Stella Maris, a member of her campaign team, who later became the Rector’s Assessor. The Rector’s assessor represents the Rector at the University and provides a conduit between students and the Rector. In an exclusive interview with The Saint, Maris spoke of the difficulties she had contacting Leyla and the frustrations she felt during her two-year term in the position.

Asked about Hussein’s interest in St Andrews, Maris said, “We didn’t talk super regularly. I spoke to her every couple of weeks. She had access to minutes. The committee kept very diligent minutes on pretty much every meeting. I can’t answer for her specific interest or how she might feel about the level of effort she put in.”

Contacting the Rector proved difficult as according to Maris, Dr Hussein moved to Kenya a year into her Rectorship. This made it difficult to visit St Andrews and Maris stated that she herself “became at the centre of keeping and maintaining that presence and understanding of the Rector's role”.

Nevertheless, the Rector’s absence and lack of engagement made life difficult for her Assessor with Maris telling The Saint, “I was frustrated, I was frustrated. There is some blame to be laid on Leyla. Going forward, though, the Rector needs more support.”

Questions have also been raised about the Rector’s absence from University Court with her having attended none of its meetings, even those on Teams, since her ceremonial installation in April 2022.

The University website’s description of the role of Rector puts University Court at the forefront saying, “The role of the Rector is to preside at meetings of the University Court — the highest governing body of the University. The Court exists to oversee the management of the University, with special emphasis on strategic leadership and accountability.”

Student Association President Barry Will, spoke to The Saint about the position of Rector and specifically about the importance of University Court. “Attending University Court is one of the responsibilities and duties of the Rector. There aren’t many detailed responsibilities of the role of Rector. That is one of the only specific responsibilities so it’s important that they fulfil it, I don’t think it’s much to ask. There is an obligation to be in those spaces and advocate for students.”

Dr Hussein’s absence from the University court led The Saint to ask Stella Maris, who, as Rector’s Assessor, attended despite her Rector’s absence, whether she thought that since her installation Dr Hussein had fulfilled her obligations as Rector.

Maris responded “She hasn’t. I had to come to terms with the fact I couldn’t drive the nature of her legacy, and she will be judged on what she did and didn’t do as Rector. I just focused on my role. It’s not necessarily badmouthing the Rector, it’s just important to be honest. She didn’t fulfil her role by attending Court meetings. The entirety of her term has contextual factors that affected her efficacy in that time.”

She went on to describe the Rector’s involvement since her installation as “disappointing.”

When put to Maris that, given the University of St Andrews’ recent run of table-topping rankings, its students deserved better, Maris told The Saint, “I think so, I think that they do. But we have to consider the role of the University in supporting the Rector. Leyla has her own faults, and her legacy of Rector will be judged according to her visibility and her impact … There were definitely times it would have been much better to have the involvement of the rector and the power and the voice of the rector behind us.”

The Saint asked the University for comment on the Rector’s absence from University court meetings and a spokesperson provided the following statement:

“The post of Rector is elected by students, and it would be for students to take a view on how effectively the person they choose to represent their interests discharges their responsibilities.”

“The currently elected Rector lives overseas. Although the Rector herself has given apologies for a number of recent Court meetings, the Rector’s Assessor has attended all 12 Court meetings over the past three years.

“The Rector's Assessor is a voluntary position, with the main role being to act as the link between the Rector and the student body, to aid and advise the Rector, and to sit on the University Court as a full member.

“The Assessor meets regularly with the Rector to advise on policy issues, and to discuss upcoming events and campaigns.”

With the election for a new Rector about to take place The Saint asked Barry Will whether he thought Leyla’s term had been a success. He said, “I think some of the successes we have seen are the ability of the student body and the ability of the Rector’s assessor to rally around when we have a Rector who is not engaged. I do think it’s unfortunate that Leyla couldn’t make time to be on campus as much, but I hope that will drive us to understand the importance of getting someone who will actually show up and be visible and that’s what I hope for this election.”

UPDATE: On the evening of Tuesday, 26th September, after Issue 271 of The Saint went to press, the Rector, Dr Leyla Hussein, issued the following statement to The Saint’s editors via the University Press office. Ms Maris has been contacted to allow her the opportunity to exercise her right to reply:

Many of these criticisms are unjust; individuals lack awareness of the background circumstances, and it is crucial for them to be informed about the ongoing situation.

Over the past year, I have faced immense challenges. I experienced a difficult pregnancy and suffered from hyperemesis, tragically resulting in losing my baby at four months. Additionally, I underwent a major surgical procedure known as an abdominal myomectomy to remove large fibroids. I am preparing for another medical procedure while residing on a different continent with a full-time job. I have been open about these personal struggles from the beginning.

While serving as the elected Rector by the students of St. Andrews has been an honour, the lack of support from my Assessor has hindered my ability to represent them as I had intended. My Assessor was fully aware of the extent of the personal and health difficulties I was experiencing. I had occasion last year to speak to her about her own behaviour towards other students. It is disappointing that she has now felt it necessary to criticise me, but people must draw their own conclusions about the motives for her remarks.

I have endured experiences such as surviving FGM at seven and becoming a refugee at 12 years old, facing genuine threats. Please understand that these challenges will not weaken me; they only strengthen my resolve. They remind me that we must always stand up against those who misuse their power to control us.

Kind Regards

Dr Leyla Hussein

Founder Of Magool and Dahlia Project

Following the issue of this statement, Ms Maris wishes for the following to be clarified:

I referred to her term being disappointing due to circumstances that made it such that she wasn’t able to engage with the university and the role as much as she would have liked to. The pandemic, which isn’t mentioned, is also important context as it necessitated adjusting the role to fit a new way of living and engaging with students.

It is also worth mentioning that she attended two University court meetings during her term and that at least one other meeting was curtailed by internet connectivity issues. Additionally, some reference to her earlier engagement would be helpful, as I believe the article doesn’t give her enough credit for her initial work in the role.

I understand the article's inclination to be critical of the Rector, and there are valid points of criticism regarding her term, but I must advocate for the truth that she did make attempts at various points during her term. The health issues she mentioned in her statement indeed contributed to the lack of engagement, though it was not my place to disclose them before she did so herself. I believe the article presents an incorrect impression of my views on her term, perhaps more due to the way my comments were presented.

Indeed, I am disappointed that the Rector wasn’t more engaged, and I would not insult the intelligence of the student body by pretending otherwise or trying to paint her in a better light. However, what is not conveyed is that I am not unsympathetic to the circumstances that both the Rector and I had to endure during our time in office. We identified many issues with the role of the Rector and the support available, and I am confident that future rectors will benefit from the extensive work done to address these.

Photo by the University of St Andrews

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