Graduation address – morning of Wednesday 24 June 2010

Thursday 24 June 2010

The following Graduation Address was delivered by Professor Pat Willmer on the morning of Thursday 24 June 2010.

Chancellor, Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen – and especially, you the new Graduates,

A graduation address is traditionally the last element in a graduation ceremony, and a strange object in itself; everyone is a bit hot and bothered in their strange clothes, all you students unrecognisably smart and polished, really just wanting to get out and celebrate – and then someone like me stands up supposedly to say something relevant and inspiring, knowing that almost nobody here will remember any of it. In some universities academics are creatures of habit and the address may go on for the standard full lecture slot of 50 minutes – don’t worry, not here… But offering up some thanks, and some congratulations, are key elements, so forgive me if I largely stick to those traditions.

My own perspective on ‘who thanks who’ has changed rather substantially over the years. I first came to St Andrews over 20 years ago, and was delighted and surprised to discover that I had come to a place that really cared about teaching and about its students, decidedly moreso than previous places I had known. At first I assumed that this was just true of the School I was in, Biology – obviously the Physical Science schools weren’t going to be like that, and of course the Arts… well, no chance. But as I got to know the University more widely, I was struck that these attitudes of genuinely careful and excellent teaching were ubiquitous, and that in every school I could find lecturers who were exceptionally devoted to their teaching, and who had superb professional relations with their students. Perhaps it is to do with being rather a small institution, and a rather special place in many ways – but I am still convinced today that we do the teaching side of things rather well, and that is gratifyingly reflected in the national surveys where we now invariably rate as one of the very best places to come for a good teaching and learning experience. In fact let me rephrase that – my own title at present is VPLT – Vice Principal for Learning and Teaching – and it is really important that the L comes before the T… learning is really what matters, and therefore also it is what you the students do, as active learners, that lies at the heart of a good University.

But of course University staff also have to excel at research and scholarship, and we have tried through your time with us to show you just how strongly the disciplines of research and teaching are completely interactive – and that undergraduates can indeed learn at, and start to contribute at, the cutting edge of modern research. When we teach and watch you learn, we are offering up insights from our own research; but we also often find new ideas from you, the questions you ask and the slightly off-beat perspectives you may have, that cause us to think afresh and so inform our own future research. It is really important that the outside world understands this interaction, and that we all resist any attempt to separate out teaching and research as ‘different’ activities, done by different kinds of people or in different kinds of institution. In your future lives, whatever form they may take, I hope you will remember this and cherish the idea that centres of higher learning and research, across all the academic disciplines, are really important to the present and future of a healthy society – and are so much more than mere contributors to the economy or the ‘skills market’, as some politicians would have us believe.

So the students do already, very regularly and genuinely, thank the academic staff for what has been on offer. But on this special day I think thanks have to go particularly in reverse, to you the students – thank you for coming to spend time here, for giving us the pleasure and privilege of exploring the world of learning with you, and for achieving the outstanding outcomes in your degrees that we are celebrating today.

But then there are yet other kinds of thanks, in other directions. Too rarely do we all think to show gratitude to the rest of the University – the library and IT staff, those in the Registry who keep all your fundings and records and achievements in order, those in student support, and the secretaries and janitors and cleaners – all these folk supply an enormous professional service, but they are also often the crucial largely unseen friendly shoulder to help students, the friendly ear that will listen and make a difference in your lives. And then of course there are the parents and families and friends, all those sitting behind and above you today. They left you here with us to fend more or less for yourself…  to make your own decisions and mistakes, to do your own washing and find your own food, to live within your budgets…  I know that you appreciate the sacrifices that your families have made to help you earn your degrees, and the support they have given over the years, but maybe you haven’t had a clear chance to express that in public. So let’s be radical today – let me ask all you students to do a bit of coordinated neat manouevering and footwork, to manage your hoods and gowns and scrolls, and just let’s have you all standing up and turning round for a minute to applaud both those St Andrews support staff represented all around the edges of the hall today, and your own families sitting at the back and to the sides. Take the chance – thank you to all of them…

This may be a good moment also to point out to the families that although it may have been a struggle, what you have invested in your children’s education may well be the best decision you could ever make – in fact in these troubled financial times, it is almost a truism that investing in education could be the only investment that really pays off at all. But just a word of warning to parents – I’m sorry, but all these delightful smartly gowned Masters and Bachelors and Doctors at the front probably won’t immediately be off your hands and no longer a worry – just a few of them may still be assuming you’ll provide a bedroom, do their washing for them, and reach into your pockets to bail them out for just a bit longer…  but in the end it will all be worth it.

Well, so much for the thanks to one and all. Another key task is to offer warmest congratulations to those of you who have received St Andrews degrees today. All of us here know that the image of students in the wider world (up at midday, and then mostly in the pub) is a ridiculous and insulting caricature, and that you have all put in a huge amount of work, both at your studies and often of necessity at other money-earning tasks in your spare time. Some of you have sailed through all your academic studies, some took time to settle and then blossomed, a fair few have had to really battle against difficult odds to get to this moment of crossing the stage at all – but all of you, thankfully, have made it now. Well done – we are all immensely proud of you.

It is probably true that at this moment in your lives you know more ‘stuff’ than you ever will again. You’ll forget most of it… probably you already have. But we hope that in your years here all of you have learned the much more important things that will help you become wiser. Whatever the future brings on, in terms of technologies that provide you with gigabytes of computer power on your laptops and even in your smartphones, it is still the software in your own brains that will matter most. And hopefully your personal neural software is now in good shape – better able to think, to understand, to reason, to communicate, and above all to go on learning for the rest of your lives.

Thankfully, most of you graduating today are equipped with the kinds of attributes that are going to be in desperate demand. Whether from Art History or from Modern Languages, you have extraordinary literary and analytical skills, and you take away with you a level of cross-cultural awareness unmatched in most of today’s workforce. Those of you with degrees in languages have a facility to communicate with and empathise with other peoples across Europe and across continents, at a time when understanding how other cultures think and see the world will increasingly be crucial. I hope that many of you may have chances to use these languages directly and to acquire other languages, to work in the Far East and Middle East, in Africa, or in South America; and I believe that some of you will bring the skills and insight you have gained here in this abstruse corner of eastern Scotland to bear on the massive challenges and opportunities that are developing in those wider worlds.

In fact in this globalized world so much is changing so fast that sympathetic inter-culturally aware people are going to be vital – issues that relate to inter-community conflicts, living conditions, food security and human health are gravely under threat within your lifetimes. Your generation is going to have to sort out some of the mess that earlier generations, including mine, have left, and figure out how to be human – and how all human cultures can co-exist – at a time when every living earth system and resource is declining. You are being flung into a world that could hardly be said to be running smoothly. But please never stop believing that you can change things. Each graduate here today could do a little something, somewhere, about an issue where there is imbalance, inequity or some form of so-called progress that is clearly unsustainable. These issues may not be the focus of your career, but life is so much more than work and careers: keep a broad perspective, and spend a little of your time seeing the bigger problems, the barriers, and helping to find ways through them. Be at least a little bit of an activist now and then, and don’t let the cynics wear you down. As our Honorary graduate Kate Adie said in Tuesday’s ceremony, there is a very simple four word message to take from here: ‘Have fun – Do good’. I hope we have helped a little in giving you the enthusiasm and skills to have huge amounts of fun, but also to understand and grapple with the challenging issues that all your futures will hold.

So: congratulations, graduates. Remember that you always have a home here to revisit, and that you will be remembered with much affection and pride by all of us. We want you at least in part to credit your later successes to what you learned here; we hope that you will perhaps send us your children in due course; and we hope you will support our future endeavours in any way you can, so that this ancient University’s role in the twenty-first century, and in its own seventh century, can also go on contributing to learning and research, and to a sustainable and equitable world for the future, for us, and especially for all of you. Thank you.

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