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University's profile and role of a hands-off rector

The whistleblower Edward Snowden was installed as rector of Glasgow University yesterday and it was, by necessity, an unusual affair.

Mr Snowden is wanted by the US authorities for releasing thousands of classified documents to the media and risks arrest if he travels to the UK so he addressed the students in Glasgow via a video link from Russia, where he has received asylum.

In a short speech, he apologised for the fact he could not attend in person but said he intended to serve the public good as a rector but also as a defender of human rights.

To what extent he will be able to do so is open to question, although no-one should doubt the right of students to elect him. Indeed, Glasgow University has a healthy tradition of electing rectors as a way of making a political statement or raising issues of concern among the wider student population.

In 1987, for example, they elected Winnie Mandela and in 2005 appointed Mordechai Vanunu to the post. Like Edward Snowden, Vanunu rose to prominence as a whistleblower, in his case by revealing details of Israel's nuclear weapons programme.

But there is more to the job of rector than attracting attention and this is where Mr Snowden's election is open to question.

The day-to-day running of the university is handled by David Ross, the convener of the university court, but the rector does have practical responsibilities, including chairing the court and raising issues on behalf of the students. To what extent rectors have fulfilled this remit has rather depended on who has filled the post.

William Gladstone, for example, is hardly likely to have been hands-on and more recently the actor Ross Kemp was so poor at attending that he was asked to resign. On the other hand, the most recent rector, Charles Kennedy, was conscientious in acting as a representative of students.

By virtue of his location, Mr Snowden is unlikely to be able to do likewise but what he can do is raise the important issues of freedom of speech, secrecy and government surveillance.

In his speech from Russia yesterday, he said citizens of a democracy have the right to know the policies of their government. "We may not need to know the names and identities of every target of surveillance," he said, "but we should know the outlines of what the government is doing in our name and particularly what the government is doing against us."

There will be some on campus who disagree with this (indeed, there were some students who were infuriated by his appointment), but what Mr Snowden was doing yesterday was what the students of Glasgow elected him to do: raise important issues and further raise the profile of Glasgow University.

On the evidence of yesterday's speech, the omens seem promising for him fulfilling that role.

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