The University of St Andrews was comprised of three colleges until the mid-1700s: St Salvator’s College, St Leonard’s College, and St Mary’s College. The Provost of St Salvator's College and the Principals of St Leonard's and St Mary's Colleges were responsible for the oversight of their respective colleges.
These three college heads were reduced to two after the creation of the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard in 1747.
In 1858, the Universities (Scotland) Act introduced a division of functions between the University Court and the Senatus Academicus, the supreme academic body of the University, which included the removal of the Rector from the latter body. This made it necessary to devise a new official to direct the academic business of the University.
This duty was assigned to the senior of the two college Principals. However, in 1889 it was decided that this responsibility should lie solely with Principal of the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard who would henceforth "possess the title and status and discharge the functions of Principal of the University."
By the Act of 1858, the Principal is the President of the Senatus Academicus. By the same Act, the University Chancellor was empowered to appoint a Vice-Chancellor to conduct their duties in case of their absence, although convention observed from 1859 onwards dictates that this office of Vice-Chancellor is also undertaken by the Principal. By the Act of 1858, the Principal presides over the General Council in the absence of the Chancellor and the Rector and, by the Act of 1889, over the University Court in the absence of the Rector.
The office of Principal of the University was established in its own right under the University of St Andrews Act, 1953. The power of appointing the Principal of St Andrews was then held by the Crown for 28 years, until it was relinquished in 1981 in favour of the University Court.
The current Principal, Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE, is the second woman to hold this office – succeeding Professor Dame Louise Richardson in 2016 – and has thus assumed the mantle of guiding the University forward in its research, teaching, and pursuit of international excellence.
Find out more about the history of the University.