Graduation address

Saturday 25 June 2011

“They have said, and they will will say, let them be saying.”

Chancellor, Rector, Honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, Welcome.

First and foremost, I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to each one of you graduating today.

A couple of weeks ago I attended my eldest daughter’s graduation. It was exactly twenty-two years since I had attended one of my own, carrying her – all three weeks of her – in my arms.

I have attended dozens of graduations, it has always been in my job description, and I have enjoyed every one, but attending a graduation as a parent is an entirely different experience. Today the focus is on our graduates. We are proud of your achievements, we our buoyed by the sense of possibilities that your energy and talent represents, we are sending you on your way.

Perhaps because I was attending as a parent for the first time, I was struck by the different perspectives of the parents and graduates. The students were excited by the celebration, and looking forward to the graduation ball, but also sad to be leaving the familiar routine of university life, a bit apprehensive about what lay ahead, a bit disappointed that they had not been appointed CEO of Google, Tiffanys, or Amnesty, immediately. And above all, determined to hold on to their friends, and spend the last moments with them. The parents, on the other hand, come with a sense of occasion, a sense of pride, in truth some relief that they will no longer have to pay the bills for high rents in St Andrews, and an expectation that this is a family occasion and that they will have the undivided attention of their offspring. So I would like to ask the graduates to remember your families, this is a big day for them too.

Perhaps you could take the time to introduce them to your St Andrews. For such a small town there is a lot to discover here. Yes, there’s Ma Bells and the North Point, but it is hard not to see something new, every time you look around, from the carved face on the wall along the Scores, to the cat chasing the mouse on a roof on South Castle Street.

One recent discovery of mine is the stone inscription over the gateway to the old University Botanical Garden on Queen’s Terrace. It reads: They have said and they will say. Let them be saying. It’s an old motto of the Keith family and has clearly been there for quite a while.

This inscription set me thinking about the role of speech, and the commitment of this university to its free expression, throughout the ages.

In the early days here freeing speech meant making it accessible. In the 15th Century two of the great Scottish makars or poets William Dunbar (The Thistle and the Rose) and Gavin Douglas, who translated the Aeneid into the Scottish vernacular, studied here. The use of the vernacular in their works represented a freeing of speech as the availability of the written word became more prevalent across Scotland.

In the 16th century only two members of the university were permitted to speak in the vernacular. According to university regulations they were: “the cook and his boy.”

In the 18th century the popular Chair of Medicine and Anatomy Thomas Simson openly flouted protocol by teaching in English. They will say, let them be saying.

In the 17th century, graduates like Alexander Henderson challenged royal authority by leading the general assembly to annul the King’s religious reforms. Professors, like Thomas Chalmers, who entered the United College at the age of 11, led the dissenting voices out of the Church of Scotland to found the Free Church; while Principals like Samuel Rutherford, asserted the rights of subjects against the King. Not that there have been many Principals like Rutherford. His book Lex Rex, which justified military resistance to Charles 1, has been described as “the most explosive political treatise of this whole period.”

Some of you probably lived in Andrew Melville Hall. Andrew Melville was a graduate and the first Principal of St Mary’s. He passionately believed in the freedom of the church from state control and the role of the university as being the place to bolster the role of the church in society. Accused of treason, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and exiled. George Buchanan, Principal of St Leonards, considered the greatest Latin writer in 16th century Europe, was imprisoned for satirising the Franciscans. Bishop Sharp the Chancellor was assassinated – on the third attempt – for his beliefs.

It would be nice to think that this institution had always been a bastion of tolerance and defender of free speech but, of course, we know that’s not true. We have all avoided Patrick Hamilton’s initials on the cobble stones outside the quad, just in case there is some truth to the superstition. We know what has happened to at least some who stood up for their beliefs. Archbishop Beaton, who ordered Hamilton burned at the stake, was subsequently murdered by the supporters of George Wishart who was also burned at the stake here for his beliefs. John Knox (which whose breeks you have not been doffed) applauded the revenge killing of Cardinal Beaton.

So there definitely have been times in this university’s past where they had said and the injunction to let them be saying has not been followed.

Other that historic curiosities to amuse you parents while you say goodbye to your friends, what does any of this have to do with us?

We celebrate our connections with the American Declaration of Independence, we celebrate our connection to John Stuart Mill, whose book On Liberty remains one of the classic defences of free speech. We tend not to remember the dark side.

Yet it is important to remember that the dark side does not always belong in the deep and distant past.

More than any recent generation of students you know how quickly the world can change. Most of you were admitted to the university in the spring of 2008 when the global economy was booming, when banking was a respected profession, when jobs in companies like Lehman Brothers and AIG were coveted, and when house prices were soaring.

During your four years in St Andrews there have been changes in the governments of most of the countries represented here today.

We must not assume that things will remain the same, that the good times will always roll. We must be prepared to adapt when they don’t.

We must not take our own virtues for granted. We must practice them.

Do we remain committed to the principle of free speech?

When I was a student in Dublin a popular slogan was “no free speech for fascists.” In the past year in St Andrews we have heard: “no platform for war criminals.” We have also encountered a sea of complaints when eminent academics, with views some find objectionable, were appointed.

This attitude is absolutely antithetical to a university, and especially to this one.

As Noam Chomsky, the unrepentant voice of the left, has said: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for those we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” Or, as in the stone inscription in Queens Terrace: They have said, they will say, let them be saying”

Carry the best traditions of this university with you as you go, civil argument, respecting and engaging with differences, speaking truth to power. As you leave, bring this openness to new, and different, and contrary ideas with you. We hope that when you leave here you will use your voice to make the world a better, fairer, place than you found it. We hope you will use your voice to tell others about St Andrews, about what a wonderful place it is, and about the 600th campaign we are launching in an effort to make it an even better university.

You are now a part of the great St Andrews tradition. Keep it close. Good luck.

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