New rector takes up his post

Published: 11 April 2008

Charles Kennedy has been formally installed as Rector of the University of Glasgow.

Charles Kennedy has been formally installed as Rector of the University of Glasgow.

At a ceremony in the Bute Hall, the MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber promised to be a working rector, representing the views of the entire student body.

The former Liberal Democrat leader said it was a "privilege and a pleasure" to take up the post at his former university.

Before of an audience of around 400 students and staff, Mr Kennedy swapped his red Honorary Degree robes for the black and gold robes of the Rector.

Speaking after the ceremony, Mr Kennedy said, "The real responsibility of the job kicks in now because what the students were looking for and what I offered was a proper working rector and that will be senous work and I'm looking forward to it.

"It's almost like being the constituent MP for the campus.

"When I look back over the last 30 years, so much of my life, so much of what has
happened, has grown from the experiences that came from this institution. In a way this is a chance on a personal level to put something back in."

Mr Kennedy was elected in February, when he took more than 2500 votes to
defeat his nearest rival, human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar.
The other two contenders were radio and TV broadcaster and writer Hardeep Singh Kohli and Patrick Harvie, Green MSP for Glasgow.

Mr Kennedy succeeds Mordechai Vanunu.

Charles Kennedy's Rectorial Address

It is a great source of privilege and pleasure – not only for myself, but for my family and friends of long-standing present here today - to stand before you as elected Rector of this great and historic university and to have the opportunity to deliver this Installation Address.

It’s often said of Gilmorehill that if you’re lucky then eventually the university awards you a degree, but it’s the university unions that give you the real education in life. On that basis twenty six years ago I suppose you could say that I emerged well-educated.

Certainly, I can’t make any great claims for the quality of the degree I emerged with. Indeed, in recent weeks, more than one former tutor has made the telling observation that they’ve seen more of me lately than they ever did in class.

At the time one particular Professor, who was very supportive, felt obliged to call me in and suggest that it might be a good idea to tear myself away from campus politics and student debating just once in a while and perhaps submit the odd essay or even attend the occasional seminar.

“What is it you actually want to do with your life, Charles?” he asked. I replied along the lines of perhaps teaching or journalism or some such.

“Well, you’ll need a degree for any of those.”

Then he paused and thought for a moment. “But in your case, Charles, I suppose you could always go into politics.”

A couple of years later I received from this kindly Professor one of my most cherished personal letters.

“Dear Charles – Congratulations upon your most unexpected election to the House of Commons. From which I can only conclude that all else has failed.”

I was to benefit in so many ways from that kind of genuine support and encouragement.

One such was the late Farquhar Gillanders, University Registrar, in whose memory the lectern I speak from today has been dedicated. And the other, whose presence today I am both touched and delighted by, is Professor Robin S. Downie, Regius Chair of Moral

Now, in terms of today’s ceremonial – I want to begin by paying tribute to my immediate predecessor, Mordechai Vanunu.

At his dignified Installation, our university chaplain, the Reverend Stuart MacQuarrie,
helped give voice to someone whose own voice couldn’t be heard directly within this hall. As Stuart expressed it then, that “as he remains captive to those who feel his very presence threatens them, thus they have become prisoners of themselves.”

Mordechai Vanunu, our continuing thoughts and good wishes remain with you today.

And also to my fellow competitors in this recent Rectorial contest, Patrick Harvie, MSP,
Hardeep Singh Kohli and Aamer Anwar.

All of us wish only the best for this university and I know that instinctively all of us share the view that universities thrive and prosper precisely because they stand against anyone being a prisoner of themselves – in mind or in body.

I would like to thank them all for the constructive nature of the campaign itself, one which – with the successful use of electronic voting, from which others may wish to take note – resulted in the highest-ever level of student participation in a Rectorial election on campus.

As with politics, it’s important always to remember – after the votes have been cast and the result declared – that the winner has a responsibility to try and represent all to whom he or she is now accountable. I’m certainly mindful of that.

And I was conscious throughout, three years on, that this time there was a genuine, shared mood across campus for an independent and independently-minded, working Rector. That is just what I intend to be.

I am determined to build upon the excellent working relationships which we were able to harness in our campaign across campus student bodies in the interests of all students – undergraduate and postgraduate alike.

In large measure, of course, that was a reflection of the nature of the campaign which was conducted on my behalf. I would never have imagined, for example, that you could have constructed almost any cross-campus campaign on Gilmorehill which achieved formal endorsements from GUSA, GUU and the QM. I confess to hearing the unmistakable sound of the clock striking thirteen when I was advised of such a consensus.

To all involved, Niall Rowantree and the many others, I am immensely grateful – and the best way I can demonstrate that gratitude is by seeking to do a good job. Simple as that. And that means not just working with the campus – but working with the Court. I’m very much looking forward to that aspect of the role as well.

I was here at a lucky time to be a student. On the basis of parental income, I qualified for a full maintenance grant. There were no fees with which to concern yourself. And such was the state largesse of the day you could even fail a year, or decide to change course, and still qualify for such ongoing support.

Halcyon days indeed.

And it’s been a dispiriting experience professionally in the years since to see the steady erosion of so much of what my own generation was able to take for granted. Over two general elections as a party leader and twenty five years as a Scottish MP – pre and post devolution – there’s been, at times, a frustrating lack of time and space to reflect properly on events swirling around about. Politics has become so reactive: much more opportunity to communicate, much less to stand back and think.

For reasons that are obvious – although I wouldn’t recommend the personal circumstances that have given rise to this – these past two years have afforded me that degree more time and space.

This is the first ever Glasgow University Rectorial Address to be delivered against the backdrop of a Nationalist-led government in Edinburgh.
I wonder what the proponents of the Scottish Covenant – the Wendy Woods, the John McCormick’s – of their time would have made of it all? From their perspective it would all have been a far cry from the deep sense of poetic national pessimism characterised by Hugh MacDiarmid:

“Lourd on my heart as winter lies
The state that Scotland’s in the day
Spring to the North has aye come slow
But now dour winter’s like to stay
For guid,
And no’ for guid.”

Today, and no more so than through our distinctive system of Scottish education, we are better placed than ever to confront and conquer for once and for all the historic demons of Scots pessimism, to challenge young Scots in particular to think and to act confidently and optimistically. And I say this, self-evidently, not as a political Nationalist – but emphatically as a nationalistic Scot.

Take it from me, you can’t have spent your first 16 years as a Scottish opposition MP, banging your head up against apparently insuperable Westminster intransigence, not to recognise the profoundly healthier democratic environment within Scotland today.

And it is emphatically good news that the position of this university will be central to the review of the existing powers of the Scottish parliament, through Sir Kenneth Calman, our Chancellor, having been appointed chair of that Commission itself.

I have been struck greatly and favourably by the far better way that Holyrood, when compared to Westminster, conducts itself as an institution. Just look for example at the greater inbuilt transparency over parliamentary allowances. I hope that Sir Ken and his Commission colleagues will be able to build upon such better practice.

But in this role as Rector I see one of my most important challenges being to contribute to the ongoing debate and the looming dilemmas which face our Scottish system of tertiary education. And here we need transparency as well.

What do I see as being those dilemmas? Let me highlight two in particular.

First, we have witnessed a rapid percentage growth in the number of students entering tertiary education over the past decade and a half or so, coupled to the significant increase in the number of Scottish institutions being accorded university status over the same period. So far, so apparently good.

But the latest figures, covering 2005-07, also underline the fact that the rate at which the better off institutions are accruing wealth through research funding is outstripping the equivalent pace of income growth of those post 1992 less wealthy institutions.
On current trends, for how long can that be sustainable? We don’t want a situation developing of “No great mischief if they fall.”

Second, the fact that the Scottish universities cannot remain unaffected by developments in the tertiary sector south of the border. We would be deluding ourselves if we thought that we could and still maintain a meaningful Scottish university presence on the international stage.

The Scottish government’s Future Thinking Taskforce, chaired jointly by Education Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, and our own Principal, Sir Muir Russell, in his capacity as Convener of Universities Scotland, is engaged in “blue skies thinking” about maintaining Scottish universities’ competitiveness.

Seven different funding models are under discussion. And already the flak is flying, claim and counter-claim, maybe a wee bit of premature political hyperbole – something, I confess, that on occasion I may even have been guilty of myself.

Let me be clear about my current view on all of this. As Rector, I would be the first to say that the last of all places which should recoil from “blue skies thinking” is this or any other university. But “blue skies thinking” is fine, provided those conducting the exercise
keep their feet on the ground, never losing sight of first and founding principles. I’m sure that the Taskforce will do just that.

It is the political response which then follows that will be key. It would never be the Scottish way to end up with a situation which recognised the price of everything and the value of nothing. Politics is the art of the possible – and that means taking people with you. And that requires transparency and involvement – which is why recent moves in that direction by the Education Secretary are to be welcomed, albeit cautiously.

So, big challenges and dilemmas - yes. Potentially difficult policy decisions to follow – undoubtedly so. But, the fundamental difference today is that the kind of rational
discussion which cannot be avoided is taking place against a backdrop where, as Scots, the conclusions will be home-grown and properly democratically accountable.

So let’s be self-confident about ourselves. Let’s be optimistic about our collective ability to problem-solve and move forward.

Let’s not retreat to that MacDiarmid pessimism.

“Nae wonder if I think I see
A lichter shadow that the neist
I’m fain to cry ‘The dawn, the dawn!
I see it brakin’ in the East.’
But ah it’s just mair snaw!”

Well, here in the West, and in this our most historic institution of learning, I do believe in the contribution that is and can continue to be made towards the achievement once again of a sense of glad, new confident dawn.

And as your Rector I will try to play my own part.

“Spring to the North has aye come slow”?

No, instead: Let’s go forward together with Spring in our step.

First published: 11 April 2008

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