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Live from Russia, university's new rector charms his student audience

THE large screen flickered momentarily and there he was - public enemy number one and a man variously described as whistleblower, dissident, traitor, hero and patriot.

ELECTED: Edward Snowden attended his inauguration via video link.
ELECTED: Edward Snowden attended his inauguration via video link.

In a surreal echo of the giant telescreens used to spread propaganda in George Orwell's novel 1984, the pale, bespectacled face of Edward Snowden blinked down upon the faces of the 250 or so students from Glasgow University who had come to see him installed as their rector.

It was some minutes before they got to hear him speak on the weighty issues of state surveillance as the trappings of the ceremonial installation under the vaulted ceilings of the university's grand Bute Hall ran their course.

Steven Camley's cartoon 

There was the address from Jessica McGrellis, president of the university's Student Representative Council (SRC), who welcomed Snowden by gently prompting him towards more routine issues of concern to the student body such as overcrowding and course quality.

Then came the robing ceremony itself - a chair was adorned with the traditional rectorial black and gold gown in Mr Snowden's absence.

Finally there was a musical interlude, with graduate acapella group Choral Stimulation singing the Michael Jackson song Black or White, which speaks of equality and of not being scared "When the going gets mean", which it undoubtedly has in Mr Snowden's case.

When Mr Snowden finally got the chance to speak, from an undisclosed location in Russia via a scrambled wireless link, his audience was not disappointed. "Thank you very much," he drawled, to great applause, cheering and the occasional whoop.

"First off, I'd like to give my thanks to everyone at the university. To the student body, to the SRC, to everyone who participated in the election whether they were candidates or whether they were voters.

"I am disappointed and I must apologise for being unable to attend in person, but unfortunately I have discovered that I am barred from entering the UK on the grounds that my presence is considered detrimental to the public. I do think it is fair to say that the election shows the students of this university have a different opinion and I am honoured to find that is the case."

As the hall listened in almost total silence, Mr Snowden went on to argue that, in a democracy, people have a right to know the policies of their government.

"We may not need to know the names and identities of every target of surveillance, of every active operation, but we should know the general outlines of what the government is doing in our name and particularly what the government is doing against us," he said. "If we are going to build a better future we have to abide by the principle you can't merely believe in something. You can't just say the words, you can't just think about it. If you believe in something you have to stand up."

As the procession of university officials and student representatives filed out to sip prosecco or orange juice in the chilly cloisters with the assembled throng, the prevailing mood was one of quiet satisfaction.

"I think it is a good thing for the university. It's not going to show the world what to do, but it is a significant statement and with previous rectors being actors from EastEnders it is a lot better than that," said one.

Chris Cassells, a student who nominated Mr Snowden, was also pleased, although there was still the issue of whether he will be able to campaign on behalf of students.

"I don't see why not. I hope he will have the opportunity to stand up for Glasgow students," he said.

It is a view shared by the SRC, with Ms McGrellis saying the body will do everything it can to facilitate his involvement in student affairs.

"I'm not sure how, but as long as there is good communication I am sure it will happen," she said.

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