Graduation 2009 – opening address

Tuesday 23 June 2009

 The following address was delivered by Principal and Vice-Chancellor Dr Louise Richardson during today’s opening graduation ceremony.


Aien Aristeuein

Chancellor, Honoured Guests, Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen.

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

Twenty years ago this month I sat where you are sitting, metaphorically that is. The graduation at which I received my doctorate in June 1989 was outdoors, as befits a New England summer, and with about 27,000 people attending. For the past week I have been trying, and failing, to remember who the graduation speaker was that day.  I expect that I had my mind on other matters, as, no doubt, do you this morning.  I do remember that I ruined the lines of my Crimson robes by wearing a white ribbon in solidarity with the students who were courageously protesting in Tiananmen Square at that time.

But what I remember, above all, about that day is that I carried my three week old daughter in my arms. She was even more oblivious than I was as to the identity of the speaker, or indeed the activities in the streets of Bejing, but her being there was enormously important to me.  I do hope that your families’ presence today 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.

My theme for this morning is our motto, Aien Aristeuein, ever to excel.  The phrase is derived from the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad. During a battle between the Greeks and the Trojans, Diomedes is impressed by the bravery of a mysterious young man and demands to know his identity. Glaucus replies:

“Hippolocus begat me.  I claim to be his son, and he sent me to Troy with strict instructions; Ever to excel, to do better than others, and to bring glory to your forbears, who indeed were very great – This is my ancestry; this is the blood I am proud to inherit.”

Lest we immediately assume that these words were selected by the founders of the University in 1413 I would point out that these words were not officially designated as part of the heraldic insignia of the University until three years ago, 2006, but the exhortation ‘ever to excel’ has been used for centuries at this university, at least since 1773 when the board still to be seen in the King James Library was first put up in Parliament Hall.

We hear an awful lot about excellence these days, centres of excellence, research excellence, education for excellence. So much so that one is almost tempted to conclude that Plato must have been  wrong when he said that ‘Excellent things are rare’  and Goethe too when he said that ‘Excellence is rarely found, more rarely valued.’

We do, in fact, seek excellence all the time. Indeed it is perhaps fair to say that it was precisely your ability to demonstrate that you too had excelled that won you entry into St Andrews a few years ago. We all like to think that St Andrews University excels and we revel in the league tables that show us doing better than others.

In many ways, this whole week is a celebration of excellence; Our Chancellor has demonstrated excellence in the 100 meters dash, our distinguished honorand this morning has demonstrated excellence in the world of music. At other ceremonies this week we will be celebrating those who have demonstrated excellence in literature, music, theology, physics, advocacy, fundraising, education and of course, cycling.

We very much hope that during your years at St Andrews we have provided you with the tools necessary to excel in your chosen field. We hope too that during this time here we have helped you to develop a moral compass to help you decide upon the fields that are worth committing yourselves to excel in. Remember that Glaucus wasn’t trying to excel just for the sake of it but to bring glory to his forbears.

Excellence is definitionally a relative concept. In order to do better someone must be doing worse. One cannot excel in everything, not even our extraordinarily distinguished guests have done so.  I hope, therefore, that you will also make the time to think about the areas in which you will not excel. What role will you play in these areas? Every successful polity needs followers as well as leaders. If you choose not to throw your energy into politics, the arts, or education what will your attitude towards those fields be? Will you ignore, or belittle them, or will you engage constructively so that others can excel therein? Will you play the role of a stranger or a cynic or will you play the role your families have played in getting you to this point, quietly helping from the sidelines, without thought of compensation? And how will you respond to excellence in others? With envy or admiration? Voltaire tells us that ‘By appreciation, we made excellence in others our own property’ I expect your families might agree.

When you leave Younger Hall today you will leave as a graduate of the University of St Andrews. You will never forget that. At least there will be a lot of us here working hard to ensure that you do not forget, that you remain connected to the University, become an ambassador for our strengths, and help us to address our weaknesses, that in time you invest in this University so that students in years to come will also have access to an excellent education, that they will have the same opportunities you have had to acquire the skills necessary to excel in the world,  the wisdom necessary to select the fields in which to make a difference, the sense of community necessary to  enjoy the excellence of others.

So go ahead and strive for excellence for the good, or glory, of yourselves, your family, your university, and your community. Enjoy excellence in others and help others to excel.

Aien Aristuein!

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