Graduation address – Louise Richardson

Thursday 24 June 2010

The following Graduation Address was delivered by Louise Richardson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, on the afternoon of Thursday 24 June 2010.


Chancellor, Rector, Honoured Guests, Graduates, Ladies and Gentlemen.

First and foremost I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to those of you who have just graduated from St Andrews today. I would also like to offer my congratulations, and my welcome, to the friends and families who are with you. While you have put in a lot of work (and I hope you’ve had a lot of fun) along the way too, your family and friends have been on the sidelines, cheering you on, no doubt sending some cash, and lending a supportive hand and sympathetic ear. As you embark on what I expect will be some serious celebrating as soon as you leave the hall today, I hope you will spare a moment for your families, introduce them to your life here, and draw them into your celebrations. It’s a very big day for them too.

One of the most striking features of this remarkable university is how many extraordinary people have formed the fabric of its past. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the most beloved Rectors, JM Barrie; the man who created the magical world of Neverland, as well as the unforgettable boy who would never grow up, Peter Pan. The speech he gave at his installation in May 1922 became perhaps the most famous Rectoral addresses of all time. It was called, simply, Courage.

Barrie had succeeded Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig – later Earl Haig – as Rector. By the time Barrie came to deliver his installation address, Haig had assumed the role of Chancellor of St Andrews, and was present on stage while Barrie spoke. The hall was filled with people who had served in and suffered during the Great War. You can imagine the scene in the hall. Elected in 1919 Barrie delayed his installation for over two years so that he could work on his speech. When he arrived to deliver the address he was consumed with nerves. He said it was his first and last public appearance. Described by a contemporary as “white as paper” he was initially too nervous to speak and when he finally did he was inaudible. But in the end he delivered a powerful and memorable meditation on the loss of young men in the war, interspersed with references to his fantasy friend, his unruly half, McConnachie. His speech lasted an hour and a half. Don’t worry, mine won’t be quite so long.

In the course of his speech Barrie invited the audience to imagine how they would spend one hour of their choice at any point in the then 500 year history of the university. He said he’d spent at least part of his with Samuel Johnson who said of Courage: “Unless a man has that virtue he has no security for preserving any other.” You could do worse than ignore the rest of what I am going to say and engage in this mind game. (For my part I think I’d like to divide my time between observing John Knox, engaging John Stuart Mill, and participating in the University’s two most famous parties to date, the one when the papal bull arrived and 99 years ago when the 500th anniversary was celebrated.)

At another point Barrie said: “You must excuse me if I talk a good deal about courage to you today. There is nothing else much worth speaking about to undergraduates or to graduates or to white haired men and women.”

We tend to associate Courage with warfare and certainly there has been a long and proud connection between the university and military service. The roll of Service of World War One includes 972 names and the Roll of Honour 130. In the Second World War the Roll of Service lists over 1900 names and the Roll of Honour 161, and remember that the university was very much smaller in those days. Today 162 of our alumni serve in the armed forces. Earlier this year Captain Martin Driver, who was enrolled on a part-time Postgraduate Diploma course here, died as a result of injuries sustained in Afghanistan where he was serving with the Royal Anglian Regiment. Many of the soldiers who have died in Afghanistan have died trying to diffuse IEDs – improvised explosive devices – men like Oz Schmid, Guy Mellors and David Markland. Those of us who have seen the film The Hurt Locker have some sense of just what extraordinary courage it must take to approach a bomb primed to explode.

Many of our university’s traditions actually revolve around expressing our admiration of Courage. You have no doubt tiptoed around the intertwined initials ‘PH’ outside the quad for fear of failing your exams but it’s worth remembering that the monogram is there to commemorate someone, Patrick Hamilton, who had the Courage to die, and to die slowly and painfully, for his beliefs. The Pier Walk, which so many of you I’m sure have enjoyed, is undertaken to commemorate the bravery of the 19 year old philosophy student John Honey who dived into the raging seas several times on January 3rd 1800 to rescue five seamen from drowning.

My own mental image of Courage, that I associate with graduations because it occurred during mine, is the photograph of the unknown young Chinese man who stood, shopping bags in hand, in front of a  column of Type 59 tanks in Tiananmen Square on 5 June 1989, the day after Chinese tanks forcibly removed protesters. We don’t know who he was, or what happened to him. I’m not sure that universities, even the very best of them, can teach that kind of courage.

Mark Twain once remarked that it was very curious that physical courage could be so common in the world when moral courage was so rare. It wasn’t so much Peter Pan  as Atticus Finch, I think he had in mind. Harper Lee put into the mouth of the irrepressible Scout, “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.” Universities can and must provide a model for this kind of courage, the courage to speak truth to power, to remain silent in the face of attack, to uphold unpopular positions.

But universities are also, of course, places to have fun and nobody appreciated this more than Barrie. This is, after all, the man who is reputed to have said on being introduced to HG Wells, “It is all very well being able to write books, but can you waggle your ears?”  He told the students of St Andrews in 1922: “Be not merely courageous, but lighted hearted and gay.” Or, as Peter Pan put it to the nervous John: “Would you like an adventure now, or would you like to have your cup of tea first?”

Returning to where we started, your families, Barrie closed his famous address by saying: “Mighty are the Universities of Scotland, and they will prevail. But even in your highest exultations never forget that they’re not four but five. The greatest of them is the poor proud homes you come out of… She, not St Andrews, is the oldest University in Scotland, and all the others are her whelps”

As you head out of Younger Hall and onto life’s great adventure, my colleagues and I wish you the very best of health, happiness and success. We hope you will always consider yourselves part of the St Andrews community and that you will retain close ties to the university. We also hope, as Barrie said, that you will: “greet the unseen with a cheer” and as you leave, remember, it’s ‘second to the right and straight on ’til morning.’

Louise Richardson
Principal Vice-Chancellor

24 June 2010

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