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Graduation 2009 – closing address

The following address was delivered by Principal and Vice-Chancellor Dr Louise Richardson during the closing graduation ceremony on Friday 26th June.

Riding the Waves of Change

Chancellor, Honored Guests, Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen.

First and foremost I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to those of you who are graduating from the University of St Andrews today.

This is a wonderful day. Twenty years ago this month I sat where you are sitting, metaphorically at least. The graduation ceremony at which I received my doctorate in June 1989 was outdoors, as befits a New England summer, and there were about 27,000 people in attendance. For the past few days I have been trying and failing to remember who the graduation speaker was that day. I expect my mind was on other matters, as no doubt are yours today.  You have no idea how reassuring it is, when contemplating  giving a graduation address, to discover that you have no recollection of your own graduation speaker, much less what they said.

What I do remember, above all, about that day was that I carried in my arms my three week old daughter. She was understandably oblivious to the proceedings but her presence was enormously important to me. I do hope that your families’ presence here is as important to you. Those of you who are graduating have had a couple of relaxing weeks since the end of exams, you are no doubt about to engage in some serious celebrating  the moment I stop speaking, and you escape this hall, but I hope you will spare a thought for your families. This is a big day for them too.  St Andrews is your place, you have come to know it and master it over the past few years, but they have watched and cheered and assisted you from the sidelines in a whole variety of ways, so I hope you will draw them into your celebrations today. It’s a big day for them too.

One of the attractions of St Andrews to all of us who come here is the sense of tradition, the close ties the university retains to its past. Today’s graduation ceremony reflects this vibrant heritage, with the fifteenth century maces, the Latin text, and the formal academic dress, indicating to those familiar with the color scheme, that you are an MA., an  MLitt, or a PhD. The hoods and gowns are medieval in origin and date back to the clergy and scholars of the earliest European universities. The actual ritual of graduations in which we have participated this morning, the birretatio or “capping” by the chancellor has been practiced here for almost 600 years. The other customary rites of the graduate’s ascent to the magisterial throne, to be followed by a lecture given in Latin to the assembled staff and students have not survived, you will be relieved to learn. But the ceremony itself retains enough of its medieval roots to be familiar to those students who first studied here in the early fifteenth century. The world you enter as graduates, however, has changed almost beyond recognition.

The speed of communication at the time of the university’s foundation depended simply on the speed of the messenger. Nothing moved faster than a quick horse or a swift ship. The individual remained the basic information-bearing unit and news could only spread as fast as a man could physically travel between his place of departure and destination. Pope Benedict XIII issued six papal bulls authorizing the university on 28 August 1413. It took five months for word to reach St Andrews. Today, 4.1 billion people, own a handheld device capable of communicating instantaneously with almost anyone on the planet. That’s 60% of the world’s population.

In 1439, shortly after the university was founded, the printing press was invented. The first mass produced book printed by moveable metal type was the Bible published in two volumes by Gutenberg sixteen years later. Twenty years ago, when I was receiving my doctorate, and about the time you were born, the World Wide Web was an in idea in the mind of Sir Tim Burners-Lee.  In five years the number of internet users jumped from 600,000 to 40 million, at one point doubling every 53 days. Today a quarter of the worlds’ population, about 1.6 billion people, use the internet.

In 1989 computers were confined largely to business use, and socializing was a distinctly offline phenomenon. In 2005, when most of you started your studies at St Andrews, there were one billion computers, today there are two billion. Facebook was launched by a Harvard undergraduate in February 2004. By the time you arrived at St Andrews there were 8.3 million users. Today there are over 200 million.  Twitter was unheard of when you arrived in St Andrews, now there are about 35 million users. The pace of change in the world you are entering is simply unprecedented and it’s increasing.

The technological revolution has had an impact on more than our ability to communicate and socialize. The recent US presidential election has been aptly described as the “Facebook election”, with candidate Obama’s 2 million Facebook supporters overwhelming candidate McCain’s 600,000. The day I received my doctorate was the day Chinese tanks cleared the protesters from Tiananmen Square.  We wore white ribbons on our Crimson gowns to express solidarity with the Chinese students, although we did not know precisely what was happening. Today, Twitter, YouTube,  and email bring us instantaneous and graphic accounts of what is happening in the streets of Iran.  At the time St Andrews was founded the hundred years war was finally drawing to an end, it lasted 116 years in all.  Twenty years ago the Cold War was declared over as Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, and in a matter of months the Berlin Wall came down and communist regimes collapsed all over Eastern Europe. By the way in other significant events that year the film, Batman, was released, Nintendo unveiled Game Boy, and the first full length episode of The Simpsons premiered on Fox television.

We know that you are entering a world in which the pace of change increases constantly but we do not know the precise challenges you will face. The economic climate in which your peers graduated in this room a year ago was entirely different from the economic climate you face today.  We, your teachers, have worked to prepare you. At St Andrews we have tried to provide you both with the skills you will need to navigate this ever changing world, as well as the wisdom to keep your bearings.

You cannot control the nature of the world you will face but you can control the attitude you bring to that world.

Every summer my family and I spend time on Martha’s Vineyard, an island with some fabulous beaches off the coast of Massachusetts. Part of the ritual of our time there is to go down to the beach in the morning and make an assessment of the surf.  The more vigorous the waves the more fun we will have. We then spend hours riding the waves. You get buffeted and bruised, you often don¿t end up where you expect, but there is nothing more exhilarating or satisfying or exhausting.  That’s the world we are sending you into, enjoy it.

As you enter this world we hope you will remember the best traditions of St Andrews, the respect for education, and the creative and enterprising spirit of those who found this university. As you experience success, we hope that you will remember St Andrews and help us to ensure that others will have the benefits you have had of a St Andrews education. Above all, we hope that as the world changes around you, you will set yourself the task of making it a better world.

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