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Rector? What Rector?

St Andrews' Chronically Absent Rector Has Let Students Down

What is the point of the Rector? I doubt many St Andrews students could give you a good answer to that question. After promising real change in the 2020 Rectorship election, Leyla Hussein, the University’s Rector, has become little more than a rubber stamp for the policies of the University’s bureaucracy. Instead of sticking up for students, she has disengaged from her crucial role in St Andrew's life. Though Leyla (or, more likely, someone in Leyla’s team) occasionally surfaces to post a bland infographic, she has become an invisible character. Her conduct paints a picture of a distracted activist, uninterested in the students that elected her.

As Rector, Leyla is the President of the University Court — the governing body of the University which has jurisdiction over “all aspects of strategic planning and the management of resources.”

It is an institution with genuine power: Sally Mapstone, Barry Will, and all the other big names in the University establishment attend its meetings. For example, it approved the controversial demolition of Albany Park (the only genuinely affordable student accommodation).

Clearly, a hardworking Rector could exercise real influence as the Court’s president. Could Leyla use these meetings to honour her manifesto pledge to tackle the St Andrews housing crisis? To improve student services? To raise common concerns?

Not a chance. Out of the twelve meetings she could have attended, Leyla has only made it to two. This negligence represents an utter dereliction of her duties and does a disservice to the students she was elected to represent. Our Rector is failing us in the place where her role matters most.

Disappointingly, Leyla’s carelessness is not confined to these meetings. No aspect of St Andrews life seems to evoke even an iota of passion in her. Since her election as Rector, she has only visited St Andrews once — to attend her ceremonial dragging. Further, the Rector’s Committee, the beating heart of Leyla’s policy machine, has failed to pursue any meaningful change. After three years under her control, it has virtually nothing to show for itself. Granted, the committee co-produced the ‘Do No Harm Framework’ — a small document detailing the ethical principles guiding student services. However, even this framework (which will likely have no impact on the material reality of student life) was adapted from Options Consultancy Services for The Girl Generation. Leyla and her team were simply re-packaging work that had been done before.

What is most shocking is that this 16-page PDF is, arguably, Leyla’s only tangible achievement. Her high-minded promises to “encourage and support activism”, “to strengthen university-student relations”, and “to push St Andrews to the forefront of sustainability among UK institutions” have been wholly neglected.

The (hard to find) list of Rector’s Committee publications embodies the shocking deficiency of her leadership. Whilst its website is nicely packaged in Leyla’s signature pink-and-purple graphic style, it is utterly devoid of substance. It contains an out-of-date link to the Racial Equality Charter Survey (which the Rector’s Committee had no role in creating), some basic information on social causes, and a link to the Rector’s Committee's annual report for 2020/21. No such reports are available for the academic years 2021/22 or 2022/23.

With that, I have summarised the cumulative result of three years of work. Whilst I understand that reforming a university is a challenging undertaking, there is simply no excuse for a failure of this magnitude. The problem isn't even that Leyla hasn’t made change — that’s hard in a place like St Andrews — it's that she doesn’t seem to have tried.

Now, this is all made worse by the fact that Leyla’s toothless Rectorship and low profile were not inevitable. It's worth reflecting that, in the 2020 Rector election, Fiona Hill represented a compelling alternative. Hill is a foreign policy expert and was the star witness in Trump's impeachment trial. She could’ve made a real impact — her manifesto pledges included massively reinvesting in the University as well as reforming disciplinary procedures. But St Andrews students were seduced by Leyla’s slick campaigning and exciting promises. Her dedicated self-presentation as a committed activist took the student body by storm. Fiona Hill is now chancellor of Durham University.

Closer to home, there are several models of excellent University leadership – just look at the dedication of Barry Will (President of the Students’ Association) and Stella Maris (The Rector’s Assessor). When Stella was still a student at St Andrews, she was stepping up and attending University Court meetings in Leyla’s place. Barry founded CASH and is now advocating for St Andrews students' interests as an elected official. The contrast between their dogged determination and Leyla's perpetual unavailability couldn't be sharper. Though we should remember that the power of the Rector is by no means limitless, Leyla’s chronic absence is not normal. In fact, the prevailing silence surrounding her poor leadership is incredibly bizarre. I can only assume most St Andrews students have forgotten who she is.

As Leyla’s term draws to a close, it's worth considering who has benefited from her Rectorship. Leyla certainly has — she’s received fawning attention from prestigious media outlets. In fact, ‘Rector of the University of St Andrews’ serves as the perfect adornment to her glowing CV, imbuing her activism (and business ventures) with the sparkle of institutional legitimacy. The University establishment hasn’t done too badly out of her time in charge. A quiet, pliable Rector facilitates their continued bureaucratisation and financialisation of academia. Without an engaged Rector, the University can sell off affordable housing in peace.

But what about the students? Has Leyla improved our lives? Has she delivered on her pledge to bring access, action, and accountability to St Andrews? I don’t think so. Whilst her committee has tinkered with some university guidelines, Leyla has looked the other way as student life in St Andrews has become exponentially more expensive. She has ignored the multitude of crises facing students (cost of living, housing, strikes) and exploited her position to refine her personal brand. When it comes to advocating for student interests and pushing for practical changes, she has failed spectacularly.

One of the first Rectors of St Andrews was John Stuart Mill — following his election he made one magnificent speech before disappearing for the rest of his term. Continuing in this mould, early Rectors of St Andrews considered the position ceremonial, using it as a means of self-aggrandisement. However, as times changed, so did the role. Rectors began to take a more hands-on approach. Katharine Whitehorn, the first female Rector of St Andrews, was central to this development — she had such an impact that the University named Whitehorn Hall after her. Modern Rectors have abided by her example, displaying an interest in university life, and acting as a voice for the student body.

Leyla, in spite of her activist presentation, has taken us back into the past. She has reduced the role of Rector to its ceremonial function and, in the process, taken St Andrews students for fools. As her wasted term draws to a close, we have the opportunity to elect a new Rector. Let’s choose someone who’ll actually do their job. St Andrews students are some of the brightest in the world, we should be able to explain the point of our Rector.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

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