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The Rector

Return to information about the rector

As in the other two Scottish universities founded in the Middle Ages, the Rector was originally the active head of the University and exercised jurisdiction over all its members. He was elected by the votes of all members of the University community divided into their “nations”. Every student, teacher and officer was considered, according to their place of birth, to be a member of one of these four nations (originally known as Clydesdale, Teviotdale, Albany and Rothesay). Voting by nations continued until 1977.

The rectorial elections were held annually after 1451, but it became a tradition (sometimes broken) from the early eighteenth century to continue a rector for a second year.

The first rectorial election was held on 18 September 1452 but from then until 1577 it was normally held on St Crispin’s Day, 25 October. On that day, the members of each of the four nations elected a proctor who was responsible for voting on behalf of his nation for the new Rector. If the four proctors were unable to provide a majority in favour of one candidate then the retiring rector had the casting vote in the election of his successor.

Under the Nova Erectio of 1577, the date of the rectorial election was changed to 1 March and the Rector was made president of the Senatus Academicus. After the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689 the Principal became the effective head of the University and the Rector’s office became more of an honorary one. However, the Rector occasionally exercised visitorial or inspectoral functions until the end of the eighteenth century.

The students were deprived of the right to vote in rectorial elections during the 1690s, and Sir John Maxwell continued as Rector for twenty-six years, from 1691 until 1717. In 1717 the students voted for a new Rector but a Commission decided that there had been “an irregular election” and their right to vote was withdrawn once more. It was not restored until 1727.

An ordinance of 1859 stipulated that only matriculated students were eligible to vote in their nations for a new Rector and, in the event that no candidate carried a majority of the nations, the Chancellor was to have the casting vote. This process continued until 1891 when it was stipulated that, in the event of a tied vote, the election should be decided by the majority of the votes cast by the students who had voted. A secret ballot was introduced in the 1960s.

According to the terms of the Act regulating the University of Glasgow of 1727, the date of the rectorial election was changed to 15 November (or the 16th, if the 15th fell on a Sunday). That arrangement was altered by an ordinance of 1895 which stipulated that the elections should be held on any day in October or November fixed by the Court after consultation with the Senatus Academicus, but no later than the second Saturday in November. Today, it may be held on any day in the Candlemas Term fixed by the University Court after consultation with Senate.

Since the Universities (Scotland) Act of 1858, the Rector has been elected by the students for a period of three years. He or she not only represents the students but is also, ex-officio, the Chairman of the University Court, the body which administers the resources of the University. The Rector now has a number of key duties representing students. He or she is expected to attend meetings of Court, to work closely with the Students’ Representative Council, and to bring student concerns to the attention of the University’s managers. However, their participation in events is entirely voluntary and depends on their own availability and choice.

The Rector is formally installed in a ceremony and gives a speech known as an address. With prominent public figures such as politicians, there has often been a delay of a year or more between the election of a Rector and his installation. There was a tradition in the 19th and 20th centuries of students meeting the Rector at the railway station on the evening before the installation and accompanying him to the University in a torchlight procession. The tradition of rectorial fights, when students staged mock battles near the polling station on the day of the election, continued until 1953.

Prior to the University’s move to Gilmorehill in 1870, installations took place in the Common Hall of the Old College. Installations have also taken place outwith the University in the Kibble Palace and St Andrew’s Hall. Since 1959, the University’s Bute Hall has been the setting for most installations. Classes are suspended for the installation ceremony, to permit students to listen to the rectorial address.

The University’s first rectors were churchmen and administrators, often drawn from the University’s own teaching and administrative staff. In the 18th and early 19th century it became common to elect local lairds and senior figures from the worlds of learning and the law, such as Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. After 1820, most Rectors were chosen from the ranks of British politicians and spent little time on campus, a tradition which lasted until the 1970s.

Since the 1930s, many candidates have stood on a “working rector” ticket and Lord Reith, George Macleod, Michael Kelly, Johnny Ball and Richard Wilson are among those to have done so successfully. Students have also voted to demonstrate their support for a particular cause and elected rectors who were not expected to chair Court or take an active part in the role as they have been unable to leave their country. Such rectors have included Raymond Poincaré, Albert Luthuli, Winnie Mandela and Mordechai Vanunu.

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