Being nominated to stand as Rector of Edinburgh University is a great honour. It is a University with a past legacy and current practice of stellar research and wonderful teaching.
Not only do I have roots in the city and a track record of campaigning for Human Rights (particularly LGBT equality), but I care deeply about higher education and the role of universities in public life.
I was Chairman of the governing Council of the University of Sussex in 2007-13. Working with staff, students and the Executive, we returned the University to the top twenty in all the league tables and created a fourfold increase in surplus which enabled us to spend 40% more on widening participation and invest in a capital programme that hugely improved the quality of student accommodation and revamped a significant proportion of the teaching buildings.
I was one of the six co-founders of Stonewall in 1989 and in 2011 co-founded the international LGBT charity Kaleidoscope.
I spent a good part of my childhood in Edinburgh and Stirling. My father was in a Scottish regiment, and I attended primary school in Davidson’s Mains. I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe for 10 years from 1982 and won the Perrier Award for Comedy there in 1989. My sister and her family still live in the city.
So, Edinburgh (along with Brighton, where I live, and Wiltshire, where I went to school) is one of three compass points of my life
I am standing as Rector pledging to work on three related themes:
- To work with the University community of all staff and students to embrace and promote the free exchange of ideas as the core purpose of the University
- To work with students, staff and the University management to bring about improvements in the student experience, in particular any enhancement of student support, and to help build a greater sense of academic community.
- To facilitate bridges across any divides between staff, between students, between staff and students and between the University community and the management – helping to improve communication all round.
The Rector has great convening power across the University and it should be used to explore and heal. As institutions, Universities are not merely players in national debates, they are the forum for them. We must promote fearlessness in the expression of lawful views. It’s not just our legal obligations, it’s our moral obligation to contribute well to civil society and the discussions which lead to a Good Society. As the then Poet Laureate John Masefield said in his inspiring speech just after WW2 to the students at Sheffield University, “wherever a University stands, it stands and shines; wherever it exists, the free minds of men and women, urged on to full and fair enquiry, may still bring wisdom into human affairs”.
Recovering from Covid has been a momentous task for Universities. Inevitably restoring the quality of the student experience has been challenging. While, as reported in The Student in August last year, 70% of students are happy with their experience there is space to restore further the quality of that experience and address improvements in staff working conditions. The role of Rector offers an opportunity to convene discussions on the most effective ways of achieving these improvements.
Staff and students have recently experienced difficulties with processes and new policies. Through the People and Money (P&M) IT system staff found themselves out of pocket, and there was, according to the report published in December last year, a “profound impact on the wellbeing” of the staff who had to try and deal with the backlog created by the system. These kinds of events impact on institutional trust. Since being nominated I have already been told by staff and students of some of their anxieties about implementation of the curriculum transformation project and the new student support model.
My work in companies and organisations is precisely based on the diversity of identities, backgrounds and viewpoints of staff and colleagues. I spend my time, and have developed considerable skill, working to enable colleagues to collaborate through their differences towards a common aim. In my work it is not my own views that particularly matter but the fact that ‘you have a view and experiences and I have different ones’. Bringing those views and experiences together to disagree well and so find a way forward together is my professional and persona expertise. It is why I called my book “The Power of Difference”.
I stand in order to promote dialogue. What I hope to bring to the role of Rector is my experience of Universities, my track record of success in campaigning for equal rights for LGBT people, and my professional work to embed true diversity in companies and organisations. I will do all I can to reinforce the core role of a University as a place where no one is fearful of expressing their lawful views, backed by research and curiosity, to support protest but not disruption and to help to add to an environment where we all relish disagreeing well with each other in order to find the best solutions for the common good.