On the 16th October, the students of St Andrews voted in Dr Leyla Hussein OBE as the new Rector of the University of St Andrews, making history as the first black woman to hold the position. In the 162 years since the role of Rector was created, Dr Hussein is just the third woman to ever have held the position, and the first BAME Rector of St Andrews.
Born in Somalia, Leyla is a psychotherapist and social human rights activist, founder of the Dahlia project, and co-founder of the Daughters of Eve non-profit organisation. Leyla noted in her series of Facebook campaign videos that “It’s about time St Andrews diversified”. Although the University has had many rectors over the years, with the election of a black, Muslim woman, this moment signified a crucial step forward for equality.
It seems that the election of Dr Hussein could not come at a more pivotal moment, as just a few months ago St Andrews Principal Sally Mapstone commented that the University must strive to be more inclusive and admitted that it had failed its BAME students. Similarly, with the rise of the St Andrews Survivors movement, drawing attention to sexual misconduct in our community and globally, Leyla noted that as a woman with a background in lecturing on FGM and gender rights, a passion of hers is to achieve justice for such women. Leyla specifically mentioned the need for the University to create more safe spaces and to lift the shame on sexual violence. It seems to me that she is in the perfect position to do this.
In the run up to the election, an overwhelming feeling of interest grew amongst the students, as those who had previously questioned ‘What does the rector even do?’ began to realise the substantial decision they were facing. The position was created in 1858 and instituted by the Universities Act (Scotland), appointing someone to preside at the University Court meetings where issues such as financial, academic and estate policies are developed. This person also serves as a member of the Student’s Representative Council. The elected individual has the ability to hugely effect student life at the University, so their significance cannot be underestimated.
Leyla states in her manifesto that her three core aims are: access, action and accountability. She recognises that it’s important to acknowledge the extreme privilege of many students at the University, in comparison to those from more deprived areas who, once accepted into the University, are often unable to pay rent within the St Andrews housing market. She aims to tackle the lack of accessibility to accommodation in the town. Similarly, Dr Hussein stresses the importance for both herself, and us as students to be heard by the University. Stressing that an increase in transparency between students and staff is necessary in order to move forward. Finally, she accepts that we must take accountability for all issues, particularly our actions regarding Covid-19. She notes that in an age where we receive conflicting and often inaccurate information from a plethora sources, we as a community must create “Better information” including “Financial support and mental health support” for those around us.
After hearing of her electoral success, Leyla tweeted that “Change is coming”, indicating the reforms she aims to bring to the University during her term. Of course, ideally in the future, Leyla’s personal identity would not even be a discussion and we could instead focus on her individual achievements of which there are many. However, for now, the significance of the first black woman to the hold the position is considerable. Despite the indicated progression towards an equal future, prejudiced ideas of race and sex continue to infect our society. So, let’s hope she can bring the change of which we know she’s capable. I am behind her and can’t wait to see her guide the University towards a better future.