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Dr Richardson’s Installation address

The following Installation Address, “Journey through Continuity and Change” was delivered by Dr Louise Richardson on March 25, 2009.

My Lord Chancellor, Rector, Your Eminence, My Lords, ladies and gentlemen.
Good morning!

I am truly honoured to be here this morning. I am humbled when I consider the caliber of those who have led this university before me. I am grateful to the Court for the confidence they have placed in me, to each of you for being here to celebrate St Andrews, and to all those who worked so hard to manage this complex event, and to ensure the sun was shining this morning. I am energised by the task ahead and I am deeply committed to the continued success of this remarkable university.

St Andrews is not an easy town to get to. Few people start out here. This is far from being an obvious home to an internationally renowned university. If one were to plan a research intensive centre for excellence, one would not probably choose this spot. Nevertheless, since time immemorial people have travelled to come here and in so doing have demonstrated their commitment to this place, as you have each done today.

History of St Andrews

One of the earliest recorded journeys here was made by a fourth century monk from Patras.  St Regulus had a dream that King Constantine was going to take away the remains of the martyred St Andrew. An angel appeared to him and told him to take as many of St Andrew’s bones as he could to the end of the earth for safe keeping. After an arduous journey he was shipwrecked off the rocks nearby. He found the locals friendly, and decided that if this was not exactly the end of the earth, it was close enough. He brought with him an arm bone, the lid of a knee, three fingers of the right hand, and a tooth belonging to St Andrew. In so doing he gave this town its name, gave Scotland early claim to a distinctive religious identity, as well as what today might be called a “world leading” patron saint. His journey was worth the effort.

About a thousand years later another significant journey took place. It took five months in 1413 for Michael Ogilvy to travel from Pope Benedict XIII’s court in Spain to St Andrews carrying six papal bulls authorising the new university. There was a big party in the town to celebrate the arrivals of the bulls ratifying the school which had actually been in operation since 1410. Today we are justly proud of our international connections. But this university has always looked outward. The three Scottish men responsible for the early years of the university Bishop Wardlaw, Prior Biset, and Archdeacon Stewart were all European educated. Indeed the impetus for the founding of the university was actually the intrigue in Europe at the Council of Pisa when Scotland found itself isolated in support of Pope Benedict XIII whom others considered the antipope. Supporters of Benedict, at risk of being considered schismatics in other countries, now travelled to Scotland to study. They too found the journey worth the effort.

Scholars have been coming here to study, teachers have been coming here to teach and students to learn ever since.

That there were highly educated Scots available to lead this early university speaks to the very strong tradition of education in Scotland. In 1616 the Privy Council commanded that every parish establish a school. In 1633 The Education Act raised a tax on local landlords to pay for them. By the end of the 17th century the rate of literacy, and the education system generally, were far ahead of England and most other European countries. For 250 years after the founding of the University of Edinburgh in the late 16th century there were six universities in England, Wales and Scotland. Four of these were in Scotland. The commitment to education in this country is real and it is of long standing.

The uses of history

In those days, March 25th was New Year’s Day. It was the Vernal Equinox as well as the Christian celebration of the Annunciation Day, Lady Day. It is also the anniversary of the coronation of Robert Bruce in 1306.

With such a long and distinguished history there is much we have to choose from when we seek for example. Many extraordinary people throughout history have had connections to this university. Which ones do we choose to remember? And what do we remember about them? Do we remember John Knox? Do we remember his courageous and principled stand against authority, or his fulminations against Catholics, and diatribes against women? It was he who wrote in 1558 the famous “First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.”  He wrote: “This monstiferous empire of women (which amongst all enormities that this day do abound on the face of the whole world, is the most detestable and damnable.)” At another point he wrote: “If men were to see women sitting in parliament and administering justice the sight would so astonish them that they should judge the whole world to be transformed into the amazons.” I did hear from several sources that there was a lot of speculation in St Andrews as to what was happening in Knox’s grave at word of my appointment last summer.

On the other hand, we could choose to remember John Stewart Mill, elected rector of this university in 1865. Mill was not a very conscientious rector but in his rectorial address he demonstrated that he understood universities. In it he asserted that: “A university exists for the purpose of laying open to each succeeding generation . . . the accumulated treasures of the thoughts of mankind.”  An early advocate of women’s rights, he was the first to support the vote for women in parliament, and argued for the reconciliation with Ireland. His book “On Liberty” was an impassioned defense of free speech as a necessary condition for intellectual and social progress.

We are free as individuals to decide whether we prefer to remember Knox or Mill. The history of this university, however, has been influenced by both. The future of this university depends on our willingness to allow the free expression of opinions we find objectionable. Our obligation as scholars is to subject all ideas to rational analysis and free and civil debate. Our obligation as teachers is to model to our students how to treat respectfully ideas we find objectionable. The obligation of those of us entrusted to lead this university is to defend students’ right to stage tasteless plays and protest university policies.

Tradition

As well as a complex history peopled by many extraordinary leaders, we have inherited a rich tapestry of traditions. Today, we have participated in a traditional ceremony, we have students sporting their red gowns, academics donning their robes, all demonstrating their affection and respect in which we hold our customs. Our traditions bind us together as a community. They bind us to our predecessors and our successors, but it is our responsibility to ensure that they do not fossilise in our hands. They must not become an immutable bundle passed like a sealed package from one generation to the next. Rather, we inherit our traditions, we infuse them with our values, and we pass them on to the next generation, subtly altered, and containing part of ourselves.

Edmund Burke, the 18th century statesman, was a graduate of my alma mater Trinity College, Dublin. He belonged to a small but distinguished group of Irishmen that included his contemporaries, Castlereagh and Wellington, whom Britain has claimed as her own and whom most Irish people have been more than happy to let Britain have. Burke famously wrote in his “Reflections on the Revolution in France” that a society without the means of change is without the means of its own conservation.

Our traditions are our conversation with our predecessors and our successors. When we permit our traditions to become a legitimisation for the exclusion of others we do those traditions a disservice. We cherish our traditions but we must never allow them to become a rationalisation for the protection of privilege.

The future

When we consider the men who have led this university in the past, who founded it in the most unlikely of places, who continued to study, to teach, to ask questions, to seek truth when the plague came and went, when religions were formed, martyrs burned, and wars raged, when monarchies and republics rose and fell, and more recently when political and economic empires rose and fell, all in this quiet corner of Scotland. When we consider their efforts and their success we cannot help but notice that they did not construct this university by looking backwards; rather they kept their eyes firmly fixed on the future. And so must we.

The past, rich, resonant and inspiring as it is, is just the platform on which we have to build the future. We must forge a future worthy of our past in which our successors can look back with pride. There is nothing inevitable about our continued success. It would be very easy for St Andrews University to become a charming relic of Scotland’s ancient commitment to education.

The first step is to be clear about our priorities: academic excellence. That is our strength.  That is our niche. If we remain focused on academic excellence we can build our future. To support this goal we need to recruit the best talent amongst our students and our staff. Whether our students come from the highlands or the lowlands, from state schools or private schools, from Kirkcaldy or Katmandu, we must recruit the most talented students and we must ensure that they can afford to study here. In defining talent we must also be sure that we are not trying to replicate ourselves, not swayed by those who look and sound like us. Instead we must look for the most creative, accomplished and ambitious minds, in whatever bodies they are found. When these students come here we must not just help them to realise their ambitions. We must also elevate their aspirations.

This is equally true as we search for academics. We will find it more and more difficult to compete financially in the increasingly globalised academic market.  We must create an air of intellectual excitement so that we can serve as a magnet for inquiring intellects. Our size and our location, and the intensity of interaction it facilitates, can be a real advantage here. So much of the most exciting work today, as indeed was often true in the past, is occurring on the edges of disciplines. The kind of interdisciplinary research we envision taking place in our new Medical Sciences Building and the recent cross disciplinary initiatives in the social sciences are the kinds of innovations on which our future depends.

Everything we do must be judged against the yardstick of promoting academic excellence. Much of our infrastructure at present is an impediment rather than an asset. Our library, in spite of itself, is the intellectual hub for our students. We must improve both the building and our collections. Technology today provides enormous opportunities to overcome the obstacle of distance and reduce the time sink of travelling. We should have state-of-the-art facilities so that our students and our academics can engage actively with colleagues and teachers the world over through video conference and other emerging technologies.

We must also persuade our alumni and our friends to invest in their university. It is time to build a university endowment so that future leaders of St Andrews can choose to support unfashionable ideas; can choose to invest in an area in which the payoff cannot be demonstrated; can recruit a top researcher or a brilliant but impecunious student. An endowment is a pot of money that is permanently invested and only the interest is spent. Over the long term a 6% annual rate of increase can be expected. If anyone in this room today were to invest the price of a drink, £4, in our endowment today, by the next centenary that would be worth £1,357 and, after that, £460, 504. If everyone in this room today, say 1000 people, were to invest the price of a pint, in the university endowment, by the next centenary that would be worth £1,357,208. Had one of the founders of St Andrews invested £4  in 1410 at an annualized compounded interest rate of 6% that money today would be £6,103,502, 828, 771, 390 (6 quadrillion, 103 trillion, 502 billion, 828 million, 771 thousand and 390 pounds).

Such is the power of an endowment.

Our commitment to advancing the frontiers of knowledge, to intellectual inquiry, and to educating the next generation, has not changed in 600 years. It won’t now. If we have learned anything from the recent financial crisis it must be that we need to think about what is worthy of our investment. Just imagine how much better the world would be today if just some of the billions of pounds that have evaporated over the past year had been invested instead in libraries, science laboratories or scholarships for poor students. Scholars have been questioning and students learning here for the past 600 years. We must ensure that they continue to do so for the next 600.

There is, as we know, a great deal of pressure on universities today to help the country find a way out of the financial crisis, to provide a haven for the unemployed, to teach skills to those who need them and to transfer knowledge from university to community. We are keenly cognisant of our obligations to the state that funds us. We can do these things, but we have bigger ambitions. There is no doubt in my mind that if we do what we do best we will inevitably help this country manage its future. If we can provide leaders of tomorrow who have been educated to think critically, to act ethically, and always to question, these are the people who will prevent the next financial crisis; who will help us to grapple with questions prompted by the breathtaking pace of technological change, as we confront profound ethical choices about the prolongation and even replication of life. People who will force us to confront the costs we are imposing on the next generation by our wasteful use of the earth’s resources; who will articulate our obligations to the vulnerable, the poor, the victims of famine, disease, and war, wherever they reside. If we do what universities were designed to do we will produce both those destined to make important scientific discoveries as well as those who can assess the implication of these discoveries for all of us. The payoff may be sooner, it may be later, it may never be translatable into matrices, but it is a worthy endeavor nonetheless.

Conclusion

St Regulus journeyed here to protect the remains of St Andrew for the ages. The early founders established a university here to ensure that Scotsmen would receive an education at least as good as the best available in the world. All had ambitions beyond themselves. And so must we. We inherited this legacy, this reverence for intellectual inquiry, constant questioning, and the search for improvement, the belief ultimately that truth is an aspiration, not a possession.  We are temporary guardians of that legacy.  We too must protect it and pass it on, enriched and strengthened for having been in our hands.

 

Thank you.

ENDS

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