An interview with Deborah Kayembe, the University of Edinburgh’s new Rector

Deborah Kayembe, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist who came to the UK as a refugee, has been elected unopposed as the University of Edinburgh’s 54th Rector. 

Assuming office on 1st March, Ms Kayembe’s will be an historic appointment as she becomes the University’s first Black Rector, and the third female Rector after her predecessors Ann Henderson and Muriel Gray.

As Rector, Ms Kayembe will play a presiding role over the University Court, chairing meetings of the General Council in the absence of the Chancellor and ensuring voices across the university community are represented in decision making processes. 

Ms Kayembe was the only valid candidate for this year’s election and consequently assumed office unopposed, an achievement which she told The Student made her “very proud [and] deeply, deeply honoured.”

Asked whether she felt the principles she stood for were a driving factor in her appointment, she stated that when nominated, the university said her work was ‘humbling’ and that “everything [she] stands for [could] be channelled in the country through the university”. 

While she received the news of her nomination as a ‘big shock’, she feels “more and more comfortable in [the] role”, through which she feels she can “profit the students first, the staff, [and] the university as a whole”.

One of her main goals is to improve communication between students and the university, ensuring students feel represented and heard.

 She said she did not “want to criticise the former administration”, but that it looked like there was a rift between the previous administration and the students.

‘What I’m going to try to do this time is to reduce the gap…between students and the rectorate and try to have a dialogue.

‘I don’t want any distance between me and the students…follow me on my Twitter account so that they can know me more…follow me on the Facebook page for the Rectorate! 

“Reach out to me, because I can’t run away, [it’s] my responsibility to stand for them.’

She acknowledged that The University of Edinburgh is an international place – “All people from all backgrounds, of all races, of all different languages, go to this university” – and thus she hopes to “open…a corridor of dialogue between the immigration service and students” in order to try and resolve Visa issues and ensure that students who “come from far away to study…feel comfortable, at ease”.

She hopes to promote voluntary work, as well as a message of tolerance’ and to consider “how we can be a caring university, caring for those who are struggling, those who are having a difficult time”.

With human rights and political activism prominent in her work, The Student asked whether she felt the University’s structure would be influenced by the Covid-19 pandemic and political changes, including the Black Lives Matter movement.

She replied: “The university structure has been influenced by covid, but don’t forget covid is the one that just shows the world the inequality which we live in.”

She was optimistic however, that “all these bright minds we have in Edinburgh University could shape the future”.

‘…I spoke with representatives for Edinburgh University and they told me there is a lot of talking about Black Lives Matter…but nothing has been done…We need to make actions; we need to make concrete steps.”

“My message for students of Edinburgh University is, I am your Rector, you elected me, you put your trust in me. Do not hesitate to reach out to me.

“I’m not going to change the world overnight…but…I want to listen to you. 

“The more you tell me your problems, the more I will understand the University, the more I will be able to adjust things…

“God bless you all and thank you, thank you, thank you for choosing me as your Rector.”

Image: University of Edinburgh logo via Wikipedia