Edinburgh, unlike the other ancient universities, was founded by the Town Council, rather than the church. It was one of the first post-reformation civic universities. The city’s Lord Provost was for many years the Rector of the University. During the mid-nineteenth century there were many arguments over the status of the University, and attempts were made to reduce professors of the University to the status of council employees, similar to teachers in the high school.
From the establishment of the rectorship as a directly elected post in 1859 until the end of the Second World War, the Rectors tended to be Conservative politicians (including Gladstone, Baldwin and Churchill) or military figures such as Lord Kitchener, Admiral Beatty and Field Marshall Allenby. A few Liberal politicians did get elected including Lloyd George, but in the “rowdyism” that accompanied the campaigns the Conservative candidates tended to win out.
In the 1950s the field broadened to include celebrities, such as Alistair Sim, Alexander Fleming and Malcolm Muggeridge. However the position of Rector was changed forever when Jonathan Wills was elected in 1971, the first student Rector, on a ticket of directly challenging the secrecy and incompetence of the University Court. He was followed by Gordon Brown, who took the University to court on his choice of assessor, challenged the level of academic expenses and tried, unsuccessfully, to win places on Court for representatives of the local community, not the establishment.
The late 70s saw a swing back towards celebrities and politicians, though these were now local figures who were expected to work at the job, rather than absentee national figures like the Prime Ministers of old. Recent Rectors include musicians, footballers and journalists as well as local Labour, Liberal and Green politicians.
The potential value of a good Rector to the interests of students is hard to exaggerate. He/she can exert considerable influence in Court and in the body politic of the University. He/she can be well-informed about student issues and concerns, can champion their causes, and can make sure that these issues are fully aired in Court. History shows that celebrity may be an attractive feature, but it is not sufficient on its own to ensure a good quality Rector. And every failure to elect a suitable person undermines the interests of students for decades to come. Persistent failure could easily lead to removal of the statutory role of Rector, as frequently warned by key figures since the Universities (Scotland) Act 1858 was passed. The very next year, the Principal of Edinburgh told the students that if they abused their votes “the legislature would not scruple to withdraw a power which has been abused”.