Published on January 29, 2014 | by Caroline Schmitt


Snowden in bid to be rector of University of Glasgow

head shot of Edward Snowden

Students in Glasgow are keen to start a wider debate about whistleblowers in democracy [Flickr: Robert Douglass]

High-profile whistleblower Edward Snowden has agreed to be a candidate in February’s election for the post of rector at the University of Glasgow.

A group of students nominated him in support of his opposition against “invasive state surveillance.”

PhD student Christopher Cassells contacted the former National Security Agency (NSA) employee through Snowden’s lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“The campaign is focussed on electing Edward Snowden but we’re obviously keen to start a wider debate about the role of whistleblowers in a democracy and state surveillance. These are issues which affect everyone, not just students,” Cassells told Arts London News in an exclusive interview.

In June 2013, Edward Snowden leaked confidential intelligence material to The Guardian and The New York Times, giving evidence that the NSA had been spying on American citizens through the collection of meta-data from phone calls and the internet using a surveillance programme called Prism.


GCHQ, the British counterpart to NSA, was also implicated both through Prism and its own Tempora operation, which has been monitoring traffic passing through fibre-optic trunk cables.

Having faced a sharp opposition in the US, Snowden applied for and was granted temporary asylum by Russia in August.

Catherine Smyth, an MA International Relations student at the University of St. Andrews, is sceptical about the political sustainability of the campaign: “In 2010, Julian Assange was the poster boy, Snowdon will essentially go out of fashion in time. I don’t think the fact that he has been nominated for Glasgow rector marks anything too significant. Scotland has always been quite a socialist left-wing stronghold, so that explains why this is happening there.”

Despite the campaign receiving mixed responses, Snowden’s nomination at Glasgow marks a historical success in student activism.

Participation in demonstrations has been at an all-time low with recent demonstrations at UAL seeing as little as two students showing up during LCC Activism Week. Cassells has acknowledged reasons for this weariness and hopes to tackle it through the election campaign.

“The pressure on current students to just keep their heads down given the very tough graduate jobs situation is as bad as it has ever been. Having said that, we hope that campaigns like this one will help energise students, combat apathy and demonstrate what we can achieve when we work together,” he said.


The procedure of how the NSA story was first leaked to reporters and then pursued by the liberal press has also sparked debate among journalistic practitioners.

Simon Hinde, programme director for journalism and publishing at London College of Communication, said: “Snowden and Wikileaks also seem to mark some sort of shift in the role of the journalist from investigation to the more simple organisation and publication of info.

“Compare, for example, Watergate, in which journalists tracked down information from multiple sources to assemble a story over time, with the Snowden case in which journalists were effectively given the story. The next stage is for a Snowden or a Wikileaks to publish the information themselves, cutting journalists out of the picture completely,” he said.

While Cassells and his team prepare for the elections on February 17 and 18, he describes the media’s reaction to their campaign  as “overwhelming”.

“It was covered by hundreds of news outlets across the world. The rector’s term of office is three years so, if elected, we hope to carry on campaigning and keep these issues in the public eye,” Cassells explained.

Other nominees are cyclist Graeme Obree, author Alan Bissett, and Scottish Episcopal clergyman Kelvin Holdsworth.


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