The student rector position at Queen’s makes the University unique amongst other Canadian schools.
The position was established in 1912, but it wasn’t until 1969 that the rector position became exclusively student-held.
For the current University Rector, Nick Francis, it was realizing the profound impact of caring for someone else’s education that interested him most in the role.
“I think that Queen’s students are incredibly intelligent and for me to be able to support them, advocate on their behalf and just give everything I can to ensure that they have the best experience while they’re here, that’s what led me to this position,” Francis, ArtSci ’13 said.
In addition to serving on the Board of Trustees, the rector is also a member of several University and Senate committees. Francis said the position is indicative of a culture at Queen’s where students play a key role in governance.
“The rector gets asked to sit on these committees because of their representational status as both undergrad and grad students, as well as the liaison role the rector has with the student governments and with faculty societies,” he said.
While being an ombudsperson and dealing with student grievances isn’t as formal as the ceremonial duties and advocating on behalf of students, it still takes up a lot of time, Francis said.
He added that speaking at Convocation is the biggest ceremonial duty. The rector also presents the Agnes Benidickson Tricolour Award, the highest honour paid to a student for distinguished service to the University.
“Even when I ran in first year, I really didn’t grasp the concept of the rector because it’s rather complex,” Francis said. “It’s about using influence to try and affect change.”
Francis had previously run for rector in 2010 but lost to Nick Day, who resigned in September 2011.
The decision came several months after students voted in favour to impeach Day, ArtSci ’09 and MA ’12, in response to a public letter Day wrote defending Israeli Apartheid Week, which he signed with his official University title.
“My predecessor [Day] left the office in a state that was not ideal for anyone to be transitioning into it,” Francis said. “Coming into the office, there was this almost fear that this Nick was going to be the same as the last Nick. It was my utmost goal to ensure that I restored the neutrality of the role, the usefulness and the respect.”
He focused on rebuilding relationships and spent a lot of time performing administrative work.
Francis said one of the most challenging aspects of the role is working alone.
“I can do only so much as one person … the real change happens when students, a larger number of students, speak up,” he said. “I think it’s very important that students speak up about the issues they have with the University and they go to their student representatives and use them as avenues.”
In 1969 the position was almost lost after the previous non-student rector resigned.
“The plan had been just to leave it vacant but … a group of students on campus who were on the radical left of things decided that they would love to capture the rector’s position and therefore have a seat on the Board of Trustees,” Alan Broadbent, Queen’s first student rector, said.
When Broadbent, ArtSci ’61, was approached by AMS President for 1969-70, Ross McGregor, he agreed to run for rector. Broadbent took office after he received more than 50 per cent of the votes.
As a voting member of the Board of Trustees, one of the rector’s main functions includes representing all undergraduate and graduate students. Other roles include acting as an advisor for students and performing ceremonial duties at events such as Convocation and Remembrance Day.
“One of the things that I thought about [after elected] was creating the role of rector as somewhat of an ombudsperson,” Broadbent said. “One of the goals became to not just represent students at the Board of Trustees meetings, but be able to talk to the administration about things in an ombudsperson way.”
Before the rector became student-elected, the position was often held by high-profile figures. Amongst the most notable past rectors are former Prime Minister R.B. Bennett and CBC’s first chairman Leonard Brockington.
Brockington, the longest-serving rector from 1947-66, changed the position by participating in student issues, including the protest against developing lower campus, encouraging donations and inviting speakers to speak at guest lectures. Broadbent said it made organic sense to him to have a student rector.
“I think that students should be represented by students. A non-student doesn’t share the same experiences.” The rector position, created in 1912, is modeled after four universities in Scotland: St. Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Scottish rectors are non-students, yet their duties are similar to a Queen’s rector.
Both roles place a strong emphasis on student advocacy and interaction. At Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, the rector position is elected by students to preside at meetings as the leader of the governing body, the University Court.
Current St. Andrews Rector Alistair Moffat, an award-winning writer and journalist, was attracted to the role for two main reasons.
“First, it is my old university, where I took my first degree, and I wanted to give something back, the old-fashioned notion of public service,” he told the Journal via email. “The second was that the only young people I knew were my children, and when I came up to meet students before the election, I was amazed at how vibrant and sparkling they were.”
The rector position also involves advocating on behalf of students.
During the time Ian Michael held rectorship from 1996-98, a key event was the hyperinflation of student fees.
“In 1996, it was the biggest increases ever. There were back-to-back 20 per cent increases,” Michael, ArtSci ’96 and JD ’99, said. “The challenge for me during my time was to straddle the tension between economic pressure and the rapid rise in fees which was a huge shock to the student body at the time.” He added that another difficulty was determining when to lead or represent on a particular issue.
Despite the challenges of the role, being rector was a maturing experience for him.
“It is a distinguishing feature for Queen’s that is highly unusual. The involvement of a student at the most senior level of Queen’s administration changes the culture of the entire University.”
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