600th Academic Celebration introductory address

Friday 13 September 2013

Chancellor, Honoured guests, My Lords, ladies and gentlemen

Welcome. And thank you, each and every one of you, for coming today to help us to celebrate 600 years of education in this extraordinary university, in this beautiful, unlikely, place.

At this gathering, which officially is a meeting of the Senatus Academicus, we will confer honorary degrees on 17 distinguished individuals who in their lives – encompassing a wide range of fields – exemplify our Homeric motto: “Ever to excel.” We could think of no more appropriate way to celebrate our history than to invite these extraordinary individuals to become graduates of this great university or, in the words of His Royal Highness, The Duke of Cambridge, on launching our celebrations: “far and away the best university in the world.”

The precise moment of graduation occurs when the graduate’s cap or birretum touches the head of the graduand, as occurred at the University of Paris, which was the model for our founders. Until very recently it was thought that this was actually a piece of John Knox’s breeks or trousers, but much to the relief of some of us, we discovered that it is actually the cap bought for the graduation of Sir John Arbuthnot in 1696. He went on to become private physician to Queen Anne, a noted literary figure, an accomplished political satirist, and creator of the memorable figure, John Bull. His cap has been in use in our graduations for the past 317 years.

Present at our ceremonies for considerably longer, have been our medieval maces. Commissioned at a time when there were few buildings, no library, scare teaching materials and very few books, they were powerful symbols of the authority of the university and bear testimony to the interfaculty rivalry that dates to our foundation.

The beginnings of the university were modest. Eight European educated Scottish scholars, led by renowned philosopher Laurence of Lindores, started teaching here in May 1410. This appears to have been in response to intrigue at the Council of Pisa which left them at risk of being treated as schismatics in parts of Europe. Over the next three years they acquired a charter from the bishop and then 6 papal bulls of Foundation from Pope Benedict XIII. The Bulls spoke of St Andrews being an ideal spot for a university given its:

peace and quietness. . . its abundant supply of victuals, (and) the number of its hospices and other conveniences for students,”

The pope continued:

we are led to hope that this city, which the divine bounty has enriched with so many gifts, may become the fountain of science.”

This was quite an ambitious statement at a time when few noblemen could sign their name. It took five months for the bulls to travel from Benedict’s palace in Peniscola to St Andrews. This summer we are retracing the route, on bicycle. Tomorrow afternoon, the last of six relay teams will cycle into the quad to deliver a replica of the papal bull that has been carried from Peniscola.

600 years is a very long time. How many institutions can you think of have been around that long? How many organizations, companies, governments? Not many.

We were founded:
Before the printing press
Before the battle of Agincourt
Before the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing
Before the construction of Machu Picchu in Peru
Before Columbus arrived in the Americas
Before Joan of Arc waged battle

We have lasted this long because of the enduring value of what we do, because we serve:

As Foundations of our Democracy
As Guardians of our Culture
As Engines of our Economy
As Drivers of Social Mobility
And always, As Generators of new ideas.

As we celebrate our own anniversary it is worth thinking about a few others. This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a Dream.” We celebrate the 150 anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. We celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Albert Camus, the 200th anniversary of the births of Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi, and Soren Kierkegaard, and the 300th anniversary of the birth of Diderot, and we ought to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the 12th century Azerbaijanie poet Mahsari Ganjavi. The anniversaries we choose to celebrate reveal much about ourselves.

As we planned our 600th anniversary we decided that we would base this academic occasion loosely on the 500th celebrations that took place here in 1911. Then, as now, university leaders were unsure which date between 1410 and 1414 to choose as the foundation date. They selected 1911 apparently because it coincided with Principal Donaldson’s 80th birthday and 25th year in office. They opted to celebrate over four days in September. We have opted to celebrate over three years.

Over the next couple of days you will see that we have used many of the menus and several of the designs used on that occasion. But there are, of course, differences. It took four weeks to construct the temporary building to house the equivalent of this ceremony. 3,573 people attended. British war vessels were at anchor in the bay and the guests from over 100 universities around the world were housed in the homes of staff throughout the town. The guests, some of whom had sailed from as far away as Australia, were described as “representatives of the whole of the learned civilised world.” The university awarded 100 honorary degrees that day, 98 of them to men!

In looking back at that celebration, what is striking is not only that the women did all the organizing and the men gave all the speeches, but the content of those speeches. The speeches looked backwards. They looked with justifiable pride and great eloquence at the development of the university, but they were looking backward. The thousands of people gathered here in 1911 representing the learned civilized world, appear to have been completely oblivious to the fact that a cataclysm was about to descend on their world in the form of World War I, just three years later.

As we all celebrate today I cannot help wondering: Where are the voices we are not hearing?  Where are the developments we are not seeing? What are the questions we are not asking?

This university, and others like it, are deeply engaged in the economic, social and cultural world around us, and so it should be. But we must preserve our autonomy, and above all our independence of thought and freedom of inquiry, so that we can also have some distance from that world; to ask the questions no others do, to push at the frontiers of knowledge, and to imagine a future we cannot foresee. If universities do not do this, nobody will.

For an institution like ours an anniversary is an opportunity, of course, to celebrate our achievements, and indeed our survival. But it is also an opportunity to remember, to reflect, to be reminded of the debt we owe to those who have gone before us, and our responsibility to those who come after us; an occasion on which to be inspired  to greater achievement, an inspiration ever to excel.

Thank you for joining us.

Academic Celebration

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