December update from the Principal
Issued in an email from Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sally Mapstone to all staff and students on Tuesday 23 November.
Dear Colleagues and Students
This message addresses our impending Graduation ceremonies; planning for next semester and the remainder of this one; recent issues raised in relation to the rights of trans people in St Andrews; plans for strike action by the University and College Union (UCU); and our continuing commitment to address climate change.
For all that life in St Andrews now has a more traditional aspect to it than has been the case for a while, I know that this semester has been an exacting one for so many of you. It feels like we have moved mountains to get here, and that there are a few more to move ahead of us.
I offer my personal thanks to each of you for all that you have done to support our community through one of the most testing periods in our history. Last week, the Cambridge Dictionary named “perseverance” as its Word of the Year. I think that might resonate particularly strongly in St Andrews.
Next week, hundreds of our students will have degrees conferred in our first in-person graduation ceremonies in St Andrews for two rather long years.
To earn a degree from this University is to be amongst the most intellectually capable of your generation. To earn it during a worldwide pandemic and its attendant deprivations is a remarkable achievement.
Each one of you who crosses the stage next week will have a story to tell about the experience of the past two years, and mixed emotions perhaps about the extent to which your life and studies might have been different were it not for Covid, but I hope you will all feel that you have achieved something really very special.
We didn’t drop our standards for Covid. Neither did you. We would not have expected anything different from graduands of the best university in the United Kingdom.
Graduation is an institutional milestone which allows us to take stock and look forward to the remainder of this semester, and the shape things are likely to take next year.
We promised a semester of transition, in which we moved back towards the normal rhythms of university life cautiously but with purpose and optimism, and it is wonderful to see the town colourful and busy again, and our staff and students enjoying the return of traditional in-person teaching.
In two years, we have not recorded any instance of Covid transmission in a teaching setting, nor has there been any evidence of the University seeding transmission in our local community.
That is testament to all of you, to the staff and trades unions who have worked so hard to keep our estate safe, clean, well ventilated and accessible, the teams who have fed and looked after thousands of students, the student leaders who gave purpose and vision to our Can Do initiative, and the colleagues who have taken their world-renowned teaching and research back into our classrooms and labs.
This is what living with Covid looks like. I do not for a minute underestimate how challenging these years have been, but our resilience as one community owes much to a shared sense of pragmatism, and balance.
It seems clear that the virus will continue to be a factor in all of our lives well into next year, indeed probably much longer, and that we will continue to experience occasional flare-ups of infection, and be subject to varying degrees of Government regulation and intervention, both here in Scotland and overseas.
I recognise that for a small number of vulnerable people in our community, Covid will continue to be a serious risk, and a source of concern. Our freedoms should never be at the expense of their health and wellbeing, which is why our routemap out of the pandemic prizes the safety of our whole community, not just those for whom vaccinations and relative good health already mitigate most of the major risks.
I see no reason, however, not to be optimistic about next year, and to continue our policy of a responsible, proportionate, evidence-led return to normality in St Andrews. We continue to discuss our plans closely with the Scottish Government and, as ever, I will keep you informed of any significant developments in national policy which might impact universities.
Last week, Saints LGBT+ organised and staged Transfest, a wonderful week-long celebration of trans culture in St Andrews, culminating in a service of remembrance attended by my Principal’s Office colleague, Professor Clare Peddie, and the University Chaplain, the Reverend Donald MacEwan. Transfest exemplifies why we put diversity at the heart of our strategic plan, and why we are proud to be a truly inclusive and progressive university.
I hope that trans rights will continue to be the subject of positive personal, academic and political discourse in society, but I recognise that these are issues which can polarise opinion, and in which many people are deeply emotionally invested.
I want St Andrews and its students and staff to consider how we can model to the rest of the country and the world how we surface, debate, and argue about the most difficult and divisive issues in a way which does not leave anyone feeling threatened, vilified on social media, silenced, cancelled, or misrepresented.
Every one of our students is dear to this University, they are at its heart, but coming close behind is a very long-held tradition that we must all be able to exchange and debate our different views and ideas in a safe environment which prizes civility, kindness, and respect.
Inclusiveness means being prepared to listen to opinions and ideas with which we might passionately disagree, and accepting that a truly diverse community is one which is perpetually open to uncomfortable challenge. That is the St Andrews way.
The University and College Union (UCU), which represents some academic staff at St Andrews, has asked its members to take strike action and action short of a strike next month as part of long-running national pay and pensions disputes.
St Andrews is one of many UK universities affected. UCU has 579 members in St Andrews, approximately 280 of whom voted in favour of strike action. UCU has told the University that strike action will take place on 1, 2 and 3 December. Graduation on 1 December will be taking place as planned.
These are disputes which can only be settled at a national level. It is possible that further strikes will be called by UCU next year if national negotiations do not bear fruit to the union’s satisfaction.
Strikes cause stress to those whose lives they disrupt – most particularly the students who have already been through two years of disrupted education due to Covid. I do not know anyone who looks forward to striking. Many colleagues who will show solidarity with their union and their colleagues by striking will do so with a very heavy heart.
We cannot resolve this dispute in St Andrews, but we can be attentive to each other, and the community norms of civility and respect, no matter what our personal views of the issues in dispute, and UCU’s decision to ask its members to strike at this time, may be.
Sustainability Institution of the Year
I’m delighted to report that St Andrews won both the Sustainability Institution of the Year and Student Engagement categories at the Green Gown Awards last week.
The work of our Environmental Sustainability Board and our ambitious strategy to be net zero by 2035 caught the eye of the judges who applauded St Andrews’ efforts to weave sustainable practice throughout the institution, from support for individual action to energy planning, and the launch of a student-inspired programme for carbon offsetting.
The Third Generation Project, which leads climate justice through social change, won the Green Gown Student Engagement category. The project, founded by Professor Ali Watson and student Bennett Collins in 2016, has initiated a range of programmes from Emerging Researchers, which upskills students in critical thinking, research and in communicating climate justice, to the Aamusnaan Maya Initiative, which analyses the humanitarian response to the Covid-19 pandemic within marginalised communities in Somaliland.
The judges noted that St Andrews had talked the talk, and was now walking the walk on sustainability and carbon reduction strategy.
Make no mistake, it is a long walk, and one from which we can never turn back.
Endorsements like this matter. In the disappointing absence of a breakthrough and true leadership from COP26, more than ever it is up to individuals, institutions and their communities to lead by example.
I shall write again before the end of the year, but in the meantime let me conclude by wishing everyone well for the last few days of the teaching semester.
Sally Mapstone FRSE
Principal and Vice-Chancellor
Issued in an email from Principal Professor Sally Mapstone on Tuesday 23 November 2021.
Photograph: West Sands, Gayle McIntyre