600th Anniversary Campaign Dinner

Thursday 8 November 2012

Speech by Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson at the University of St Andrews 600th Anniversary Appeal Dinner at Middle Temple Hall, London.

Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson

Welcome, and thank you, each and every one of you, for coming this evening to celebrate and to support St Andrews University.

600 years is a very long time. How many institutions, companies, countries even, have been around for 600 years? 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 Joan of Arc rode into battle. before Columbus arrived in the Americas. We have lasted this long because of the enduring value of what we do.

Scholars have been coming to St Andrews to study, teachers to teach, and students to learn, for six centuries. I hope that, like me, you feel enormously proud to be a part of that history.

Throughout that time the university has benefited from the generosity of those who share our commitment to the value of education.

Mary Queen of Scots gave gifts to the library during her many stays in St Andrews in the early 16th century.

Her son, James VI, was another frequent visitor. In 1613 he gave a handsome gift of books to the library. (Sadly, he neglected to pay for them!)

Archbishop Alexander Stewart, born in 1495 was a gifted student of Erasmus. He was appointed Chancellor at the age of 9, and fell at Flodden at 18, but still managed to endow St Leonards.

In the 17th century, the Presbyterian leader, Alexander Henderson, gave £1,000 to complete the University library.

In the late 18th century, Alexander Berry, came to St Andrews from Cupar at the age of 15 to read Classics and Logic. He went on to make a fortune in Australia and left £100,000 to the university.

In the 19th century, the Marquess of Bute donated the funds for the Bute Medical School and a Chair in Anatomy.

Perhaps the greatest educational philanthropist of them all, however, was our Rector, Andrew Carnegie, who memorably asked: “What is the proper mode of administering wealth after the laws upon which civilization is founded have thrown it into the hands of a few?” He dismissed leaving it to one’s heirs as injudicious. He dismissed paying it in death taxes as the just punishment for selfishness. He concluded that the only sensible thing to do, is to give it away while you are still alive.

He then had an ordered list of who the beneficiaries of this largesse should be. At the top of that list – you’ve guessed it – was universities. He wrote: “If any millionaire is at a loss to know how to achieve great and indisputable good with his surplus, here is a field which can never be fully occupied, for the wants of our universities increase with the development of the country.”

Thanks to the generosity of benefactors such as these the university has been able to offer scholarships to some of our most accomplished students. Students like the poet Robert Fergusson who came to St Andrews in 1764 on a scholarship of £10 a year. Students like James Black from a mining family in Cowdenbeath.

I have personal experience of the power of education to transform lives. I grew up as one of seven children in rural Ireland. My brothers did not finish secondary school. Today they work as labourers and on assembly lines. I was able to put myself through university by working every holiday and two jobs in term time; as a cocktail waitress at night, and shelving books in the library before it opened in the morning. When it came to graduate school, there was no way I could afford it. It was only because generous people had established scholarships for which I could compete that I could get a Masters and PhD. Indeed, when I first saw the tuition bill at Harvard, I realized that my annual fees were greater than my father’s salary, on which he supported a family of nine.

Now St Andrews University is not just very old. We are also very good. We rank among the top 100 universities in the world. We rank in the top 25 in the world in Arts and Humanities. We rank in the top 6 in the UK and top in Scotland. In the last RAE our Philosophy Department ranked first in the UK, Physics and Chemistry 2nd and English, History, French and Psychology near the top. We are not as good as we can be. We are not as good as we want to be. We are not as good as we will be. But we are pretty good.

St Andrews University is not just very old, and not just very good, we are also unique. We combine the talent, drive and ambition of a major research university with the compassion and sense of community of a small college. We do this in a strikingly beautiful place with ancient ruins, medieval buildings and cobbled streets cheek by jowl with modern science buildings, all at the edge of the sea, where the crashing waves, the squawking seagulls, and the Leuchars’ Typhoons form a noisy backdrop to the ineffable evening light.

We are also unique in the heterogeneity of our student body. 45% of our students are from outside the UK. We have students here this evening from the Middle East to the West Coast of the US. I taught in an MA class on terrorism last term and no two students in the class had the same nationality. You have no idea what it means to engage in a discussion of terrorism when nobody shares your assumptions, but everyone respects your point of view. The education our students get in that kind of setting is unlike anything they can get elsewhere.

But while we take great pride in the international mix of our student body, we are not as diverse as we should be in the mix of socio economic backgrounds among our students. The extraordinary privilege of a St Andrews education should not be restricted to those who can afford it.

We want students from a wide range of backgrounds to experience the satisfaction of cracking a problem-set at 2 am, or handing in an essay and saying “that is my best work;” students who experience the pleasure of changing another’s mind by the force of their argument, and who learn that to change one’s own mind after hearing a contrary opinion is not a sign of weakness, but of intellectual maturity.

We want the brightest most committed students, whether they are from Kathmandu or Kirkcaldy, whether they are roofers or royals, to have that experience. With your help we can make that a reality.

Unfortunately, we are unique in another respect too. For a university of our global standing we have no endowment to speak of: £35 million after 600 years. For the Americans among you, I expect your secondary schools had larger endowments.

St Andrews has changed over the years. I dare say for the better in most respects. There were 353 students at the time of the 500th anniversary. But if we are to have a future that is worthy of our past, that exceeds the aspirations of our predecessors, then we must be able to attract and to support the most accomplished academics and the brightest students, whatever their backgrounds.

Thank you for supporting us, for helping us to broaden and strengthen our community, for helping us attract the very ablest students so that they can, in turn, make the world a better, fairer, safer place that the one they inherited.

Thank you.

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