Rector installation speeches: Welcome by the Principal & Vice-Chancellor

Friday 20 February 2015

On behalf of the academic community of the University of St Andrews I am delighted to welcome Catherine Stihler as Rector of the University.

While many universities around the world have Rectors, only three, Aberdeen, Glasgow and St Andrews have Rectors who are elected by the student body. (Edinburgh’s Rector is elected by both students and staff.) There have been repeated efforts since 1950 to abolish the position but it remains strongly embedded in Scotland’s ancient universities.

Ms Stihler is following in a long and noble tradition. She has some tough acts to follow, and a few acts I hope she won’t attempt to follow. A statute of 1642 laid down that a Rector at St Andrews had to be a man: “not only of known piety and gravity but also of eminent virtue.” Whatever about virtue, there did not appear to me to be much gravity or piety in evidence during yesterday’s drag.

The very first Rector was Lawrence of Lindores in the early 15th century. He was a monk and served, among several other posts, as Papal Inquisitor of Heretical Pravity for Scotland. He arranged for several Hussites and Lollards to be burned at the stake in St Andrews for such crimes as spreading translations of the bible into English.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Rector had to be a minister of the Church of Scotland. In 1825 students sought to break with the tradition by electing Sir Walter Scott as Rector. They claimed that being forced to elect a minister was incompatible with their oath to elect as Rector a person: “of great worth and fame.” The election was immediately declared null and void by the Principal.

The modern position of Rector dates from 1859 and Catherine will be the 52nd to serve in this period. She is only the second female Rector. The first was 33 years ago. They are both named Catherine. Katherine Whitehorn was one of the Observer’s best known columnists and associate editor of the newspaper. According to the St Andrews Citizen Whitehorn “was nominated and elected by the student body despite such figures as David Bowie, Sir John Gielgud, Sue Lawley, Felicity Kendal and even Sean Connery, who were unsuccessfully nominated for the post in the 1960s being named as possible opposition.” Actually Whitehorn was elected unopposed, after David Bowie, who had been nominated, was too busy filming in the South Pacific to confirm his willingness to stand.

One of the first of the modern Rectors was Charles Stuart Mill who came and delivered a wonderful speech, and never returned. For the remainder of the 19th century many of the Rectors were senior politicians from the Conservative and Liberal parties. They were followed by a succession of public figures and wealthy benefactors such as Bute and Carnegie, statesmen like Lord Avebury and the Earl of Rosebery, Field Marshall Haig during World War 1, writers like Barrie and Kipling in the 1920s and other distinguished figures such as Smuts and Marconi in the 1930s. Like Mill, their practice was to appear at the University only once during their term as Rector.

Lord Macgregor Mitchell’s election in 1937 indicated a change as he was elected on a ticket of “working Rector.” A new trend was set in 1970 with the election of John Cleese followed by a series of other comedians and entertainers.

I don’t want to put too much pressure on Catherine but I would point out that one of her predecessors, Sir James Barrie, postponed his installation for two years so that he would have adequate time to work on his Installation Address. When it came time to deliver the address he was immobilised by fear and stood silent at the lectern in a state of fright, until the students started to heckle him, at which point he launched into his wonderful speech on Courage.

The example I really want to hold up to the Rector today is another of her predecessors, Andrew Carnegie, who gave the University a gym, a sports field, a gun room and an extension to the library. As you are no doubt aware, Rector, we have embarked on a fundraising campaign as part of our anniversary celebrations. I do hope you keep the example of your predecessor Andrew Carnegie in mind. We too would like a new gym, a new sports field, and an extension to the library. We’ve embarked on all these projects but could certainly use some help in paying for them. We are not so keen on having a new gun room but some help paying off the costs of the refurbished student union would be welcome!

Relations between Principals and Rectors have on occasion been fraught, as one can imagine they might be given the structure of the two positions. In 1883 James Russell Lowell, a great American poet, diplomat and Professor at Harvard University (where I got my graduate degrees) was elected rector. He ran against Conservative MP for Trinity College Dublin (where I got my undergraduate degree) in a campaign the intrigue and corruption of which were described in the press as “worthy of an American presidential election”. Lowell won. The Principal, John Tulloch, however, was unhappy with the result, and ruled Lowell ineligible as an American (though the rules said nothing about nationality). Nevertheless Lowell felt compelled to resign.

Relations were perhaps worst between one of my favourite rectors, John Stuart Mill, and the Principal of his day, John Shairp. Principal Shairp said he would not attend Mill’s address because Mill was an atheist, and worse, a democrat. Mill opened his 23,000 word speech by thanking the students for naming him honorary president of the University (not a description likely to have endeared him to the Chancellor). When Mill said that a university should be a place of free speculation, and the Church should be tolerant of those within the fold who did not agree, the Principal walked out.

Catherine Stihler is a graduate of St Andrews, where she studied International Relations and Geography as an undergraduate, and received an MLitt in International Security Studies. She was also elected President of the Students’ Association. Like others before and since she met her future husband, David, here. He too was a sabbatical officer, an American student from California studying English Language and Literature. I’m delighted that he too is back here today.

Catherine has spoken frequently of coming back to St Andrews. In the words of TS Eliot, himself an honorary graduate,

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

As you return to this place where, in Kipling’s words: “lives catch fire,” I hope you will have opportunities for many discoveries, and come to know the University and everyone here, in new and different ways.

On behalf of my colleagues in the academic community, we are delighted that you are here and offer you the warmest of welcomes.

Thank you.

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