The Lord Rector of the University of Edinburgh is elected every three years by the students and staff at the University of Edinburgh. Seldom referred to as Lord Rector, the incumbent is more commonly known just as the Rector. The current Rector is Peter McColl.
The Rector chairs the University's highest governing body, the University Court; in addition the Rector chairs meetings of the General Council in the absence of the Chancellor. In more recent years the role has included a function akin to that of an ombudsperson for the university community. In their position, the Rector can exert considerable influence in Court and in the body politic of the University. He/she can be well-informed about student and staff issues and concerns, can champion their causes, and can make sure that these issues are fully aired in Court.
The position of Rector, along with the positions of Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor, was only created in 1858. Prior to this, the University was governed by the Lord Provost, Magistrates, and town council of Edinburgh. The rector's place in the university was codified by statute of the Westminster Parliament, the Universities (Scotland) Act 1889, which provided for the election of a Rector at all universities then in existence in Scotland. To this day only the ancient universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and St Andrews plus the newer Dundee, elect a Rector; the 20th century universities do not.
In 1935 students went to great lengths to invite Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky to become Rector, Trotsky turned down the offer stating: “The elections to the rectorate are conducted on a non-political basis and your letter itself is signed by representatives of every political tendency. But I myself occupy too definite a political position. … [I could not] appear on any public tribune not under the Bolshevik banner.”
Successful candidates are typically well-known figures with some connection to the city. Gordon Brown was unusual in being elected at the age of 21 while still a student, several years before he became politically prominent.
The 2009 election was won by political journalist Iain Macwhirter. Macwhirter defeated Labour peer and MSP Lord Foulkes to become the University's 50th Rector, earning 4822 votes, or 69% of the total vote. Respect MP George Galloway withdrew his candidacy on 6 February 2009.
On 11 January 2012 the university announced Peter McColl as the new Rector, following an uncontested election. He took up post on 1 March 2012. McColl is a writer, activist and charity worker from Edinburgh.