Resignation of Rector Malcolm Muggeridge, 1968
Muggeridge had been elected Rector in 1966, the first media personality to be chosen for the post. Ironically, much of his appeal for students had stemmed from his reputation for iconoclasm and anti-establishment views. In the 1960s, however, Muggeridge underwent a religious conversion, increasingly embracing a strict Christian morality and condemning the emerging 'permissive society'. It was, in particular, his stance on drugs, contraception, and abortion which led to his resignation after little more than a year in post.
His resignation was the result of two controversies in 1967-68, the first triggered by an article in The Student magazine about the psychedelic drug LSD, and the second by a call from the Students' Representative Council for the contraceptive pill to be available to students on request.
An article was published in The Student advocating the use of LSD as a means of realizing one's potential, and providing advice on how and when to take the drug. Muggeridge loudly condemned the article, in terms, however, that show that social and political conservatism did not always go side by side in his thinking. Quite apart from rendering students 'useless academically and in every other way', drug users would become apolitical escapists who were 'unlikely to think too much about Viet Nam [sic] or racial matters'. The Principal of the University, Professor Sir Michael Meredith Swann (1920-1990) also condemned the article in on open letter which argued that the drug was dangerous on medical grounds. In response, the Executive Committee of the Students' Representative Council suspended Anna Coote, editor of The Student. At a packed meeting in the university Union, Muggeridge threatened to resign if students backed the legalization of drugs. He convinced many of those present that he was reactionary, out-of-touch, and too close to the University hierarchy. A meeting of the whole Students' Representative Council was called which reinstated Coote as editor.
The Students' Representative Council passed a motion calling on the Student Health Service to provide the contraceptive Pill to female students on request and to provide free information on contraception. Doctors at the Student Health Centre pointed out that they already prescribed the Pill on a regular basis. The SRC's point, however, was that it should be freely available as a matter of course, rather than at a doctor's discretion. Although a clinic was shortly to open in Edinburgh providing advice on contraception to unmarried people, there was none in place at the time, and students had nowhere to turn other than a GP for advice on sexual matters.
At another meeting in the university Union, Muggeridge attacked the motion for promoting promiscuity and argued that Christianity offered more to students than the 'fantasies of narcotics or erotics'. He later added that widespread use of contraception would lead to mental disturbance and moral confusion, and might in the long term prove more harmful than the H-bomb.
The next issue of The Student called on Muggeridge to support the SRC's demand which, it argued, was a progressive measure designed to combat back-street abortions and unwanted pregnancies. It reminded Muggeridge that the Rector had a duty to present an official student view whether he agreed with it or not. It also reminded him that he had promised to resign if he disagreed with any view that the SRC asked him to put forward. It therefore challenged him to back the SRC on the contraception issue or resign.
Nicholas Chalmers, President of the SRC, soon distanced the student body from The Student article, stating that the SRC had never asked Muggeridge to endorse or approve of the motion. He added, though, that Muggeridge had deliberately misrepresented the SRC, ignoring their condemnation of drug-taking and promiscuity, and painting student leaders as unanimously 'clamouring for sensual debauch'.
Muggeridge's response was delivered as a sermon from the pulpit of St Giles Catherdral in a service marking the beginning of the university term in January 1968. There was a sizeable media presence as Muggeridge had let it be known that the content would be controversial. Muggeridge declared that he could sympathise with a student 'mood of rebelliousness or refusal to accept the ways and values of our run-down, spiritually impoverished way of life', but found it 'infinitely sad' that 'the form their insubordination takes should be a demand for pot and pills; for the most tenth-rate sort of escapism and self-indulgence ever known'. What he felt as Rector was 'not so much disapproval as contempt', making it impossible for him to continue fulfilling his functions.
Muggeridge's stance was publicly backed by Principal Sir Michael Swann, by the Church of Scotland's moral welfare commitee, and by a broad swathe of conservative opinion. The resignation brought the university a great deal of negative publicity and may even, as Swann averred, have resulted in the cancellation of promised gifts and legacies.
- Separation of Roles of Principal and Professor of Divinity, 1620
- Transfer of Rectorship to Lord Provost of Edinburgh, 1665
- Universities (Scotland) Act 1858
- First Election of Rector by Student Body, 1859
- Election of Lord Kitchener as Rector, 1914
- First 'Non-Political' Rectorial Election, 1932
- Rectorial Election, 1936
- First Celebrity Rector, 1948
- Election of Sir Alexander Fleming as Rector, 1951
- Election of Gordon Brown as Rector, 1972
- First Woman Rector, 1988
- Donald Wintersgill, The Rectors of the University of Edinburgh 1859-2000 (Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2005)
Anna Coote, A boys' year, New Statesman, 8 May 2008