As Glasgow Students nominate Edward Snowden, Sam Dumitriu looks at the history of the position of university rector across the UK
Students at the University of Glasgow are campaigning for NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to become their University’s rector. If elected Snowden will be continuing Glasgow’s tradition of making political statements through the post. The role, which is essentially ceremonial, in the past has been held by political activists such as anti-apartheid campaigner Winnie Mandela and Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordecai Vanunu.
Other choices for the role have had less political weight, in 1993 they picked Johnny Ball and six years later they picked Eastenders star Ross Kemp. It’s not just Glasgow that are at it, the practice of the student body electing honorary president’s and rectors for their university takes place all over the country. At Sheffield University they elect an honorary SU president – with Olympic Gold Medalist Jessica Ennis beating out leftie commentator Owen Jones in their last election. While students at SOAS decided to elect ex-London Mayor Ken Livingstone as their first honorary president.
When the Duke of Edinburgh stepped down as Chancellor of Cambridge University, Lord Sainsbury was nominated to take his place. Originally unopposed – the race got interesting when local shopkeeper Abdul Arain threw his name into the hat. Opposed to a new Sainsbury’s Local opening nearby, he challenged Lord Sainsbury leading to the first actively fought battle for Chancellorship of Cambridge University since 1847. But, things got really interesting when Shakespearean actor and all round legend Brian Blessed entered after a Facebook campaign was launched to draft him into running. Graciously accepting Blessed stated in his acceptance letter “I’d like to inspire them to do expeditions all over the world. I would love to join them in expeditions, and promote adventure, adventure, adventure: I think the key to the new millennium is adventure.” After that radical socialist lawyer Michael Mansfield QC launched his own bid, in order to defend the value of education against the perceived market values of Lord Sainsbury. The election which any member of Cambridge University could vote in, provided they held a higher degree from the institution, sadly did not lead to Brian Blessed becoming chancellor. The excessively boring Cambridge members instead voted for Lord Sainsbury, a man who unlike Blessed, has never played the role of Prince Vultan in the Flash Gordon movie.
One of the main obstacles students face in getting notable figures elected as rectors, chancellors or honorary presidents is getting the person to actually accept the nomination. For instance, students at Glasgow are currently trying to recruit The Doctor himself Peter Capaldi, yet a month into their campaign he’s yet to respond. Similarly in 2001 David Hasslehoff was forced to decline a nomination to become rector of Dundee university.
In 1935 students at the University of Edinburgh did their best to invite Russian Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky to stand as rector. Trotsky, however was not keen on the idea – responding in a letter he wrote ’The elections to the rectorate are conducted on a non-political basis and your letter itself is signed by representatives of every political tendency. But I myself occupy too definite a political position. … [I could not] appear on any public tribune not under the Bolshevik banner.’’ Trotsky thus becoming one of the first people to ever refuse something on the grounds that students were not leftwing enough.
While rectors and the like are traditionally figures of some notability in the public imagination, it’s not always the case. For example, in 1973 Edinburgh University elected a 21 year old student to the position – future prime minister Gordon Brown.
Regrettably the University of Manchester lacks a similar position – with the position of president being held by the current vice-chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell. Manchester could go the route of Sheffield and elect an honorary SU president instead. It would be a great opportunity for students to highlight an issue on campus or big up an alumni who isn’t getting the credit they deserve. Indeed, there are only so many rooms in the SU to name after activists.
But if Manchester students were to elect a rector or who should they choose. Below are The Mancunion’s top 5 picks.
Rik Mayall: The star of Bottom and The Young Ones studied for his undergraduate degree in Drama at the University of Manchester – meeting Adrian Edmondson in Hulme Hall. Rectors don’t have to be too serious, so we might as well have someone who’s not afraid to make the odd fart joke. Plus fans of the Young Ones will know that Rik put in an admirable performance on University Challenge against Footlights College Oxbridge only resorting to violence once. Surely that’s the sort of extracurricular achievement we should be honouring?
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova: Electing Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to the position of rector would send out a strong message in support of human rights in Putin’s Russia. Students at Manchester have already engaged in numerous protests in support of Pussy Riot and if we elected Nadezhda Tolokonnikova it would show that students at Manchester are keeping an eye on Russia ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Also, as seen with Edward Snowden residency in Russia is no bar to becoming a rector at a UK university.
Sir Alex Ferguson: No person has had a bigger impact on Manchester life in the past three decades. It’d be only right to offer him the chance to represent the student’s of Manchester. Plus, if he agreed to become rector it’d give the University great bragging rights, who else would have the most successful manager in English footballing history.
John Cooper-Clarke: There can be no better representative of Manchester than the Bard of Salford John Cooper Clarke. His poems have influenced just about every Manchester poet, and he’s been recently enjoying somewhat of a revival. A true character he’d make a great rector because there’s something universal about his weirdness.
Malala Yousafzai: Following in the tradition of using the role of rector to express praise for acts of political courage, there can be no worthier candidate than Malala. If Manchester were to nominate her, they would not be the first university as the University of Sheffield Students’ Union nominated her in 2013.