The rich heritage of the university rectorship

Last week, following a win of 62 per cent of the overall votes, Steve Morrison was elected as The University of Edinburgh’s rector, but what is being a rector all about?

The position of rector has a long and prestigious history. It was originally created in the 19th century by the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858, but the role has developed over time. The rector is elected every three years by students and staff of the University, and their primary role is to preside over the meetings of the University’s governing body, the University Court. The rector plays a key part in representing the interests and views of students and staff at the university, and works closely with Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA). Although in previous years students were able to be elected as rector, this is now no longer the case, and neither matriculated students nor members of staff at the university are allowed to be put forward for election.

Many well-known people have served as rector, including Winston Churchill, television presenter Muriel Gray, scientist Sir Alexander Fleming, musician Donnie Munro, Gordon Brown, and David Lloyd George, who was serving as Prime Minister when elected in 1920. Amongst all these famous names, a three-legged tabby cat called Marmalade was put forward as a candidate in 1994. Unfortunately, the cat was disqualified due to the paw print signature being deemed indistinct.

Following in the footsteps of such people – and felines – is Steve Morrison, an alumnus of the university, who is also a TV producer and broadcaster. He came to read Politics at the University of Edinburgh in 1965, and now holds an undergraduate degree and an Honorary Doctorate in Social Science. He was also the first student to run for rector, in 1969. After university, Morrison went on to a career in film and television, forming Granada Film, which won two Oscars, later founding All3Media, Britain’s largest independent TV production group. He also played an important role in the formation of the campaign group Third World First, which later became the anti-poverty organisation People and Planet. After being elected, Steve Morrison said: “I am delighted that the University of Edinburgh’s staff and students have supported my vision for the future of education and will bring it to life in the modern world. I will do everything I can to repay their trust. Edinburgh is a great university.”

When Mr Morrison was a student here in the 1960s, there was some controversy over the election of the journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge. The main issue under discussion was that a recent motion from the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) at the time asked for contraceptives to be made freely available from the Student Health service. Muggeridge interpreted this as a demand for free contraceptives, to which he was so opposed that he resigned from the role in January 1968 at a sermon in St. Giles’ Cathedral. The University of Edinburgh asked graduates to send in memories of previous rectorial elections, and John Matthews, a Mathematics graduate, recalls how the then Editor-in-Chief of The Student, Anna Coote, orchestrated a “bating campaign against Muggeridge who they saw as hopelessly old fashioned”. Matthews, being secretary of the SRC, went on to organise Muggeridge’s replacement.

Throughout its long history, the role of Rector has been filled by a variety of people, with the first -and only – woman to be elected being Muriel Gray in 1988. Though students can no longer be elected, as long as the Rector works well alongside EUSA, the students’ opinions and interests should be represented, as we shall hopefully see with Steve Morrison’s next 3 years.

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