Graduation Address: Professor Garry Taylor

Friday 24 June 2016


Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen. As I stand here, I reflect that you and I have a dilemma. You want me to be as brief as possible so that you can get some fresh air and get those hilarious graduation photos onto social media. I have enough academic vanity to imagine that I have something interesting to say to keep you here for a few minutes. What I can guarantee is that you will not remember a thing I say. A lecture, someone once mused, is something that transfers from the notes of the professor to the notes of the student without passing through the brain of either. Of course, that would never happen in St Andrews!

First, graduates, let me offer you many congratulations for your achievements which we have celebrated this afternoon. You arrived here a few years ago as young adults to find yourselves among other equally bright young adults at Scotland’s top university. You have worked hard, you have played hard (perhaps some more than they should have done!), you have made friendships for life, you have met people from 120 nations of the world who happen to be here in this tiny corner of Fife, you have had your prejudices challenged and you go out into the world as wiser, smarter and rounder people.

Second, I would like you new graduates to thank all those sitting behind and above you. I have watched the pride in the faces of your family and supporters as you walked across this stage. They have given you more than you will ever know, but today they have seen their investment mature – although I am sure there will be a few outstanding credit card debts they will want to discuss with you tomorrow. So, let us thank your family and friends.

Third, this is the final graduation ceremony of the week. I believe we do this better than anywhere else in the world, and this is due to many people who work quietly and tirelessly behind the scenes. I want us to thank the mace bearers, the ushers, the choir, the organist, the gardeners, the cooks, the janitors, cleaners and porters, the Graduation Office staff, Registry, Print & Design and my colleagues in the Principal’s Office who make these events such a joyful experience. Let us thank them all.

Finally, let us not forget my brightly mottled colleagues sitting behind me who have had the privilege, and sometimes the pain, of teaching you and helping you through your journey here. One of the joys of our profession is the constant renewing of young talent who keep us young. Let’s give them a round of applause.

Well, now I can start my address!

Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this year, when, incidentally, this University was already over 200 years old, wrote “truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays”. I cannot help feeling that this is apposite today when we consider the political landscape on both sides of the Atlantic. Political rhetoric has descended into trading fear and prejudice, pedaling half-truths, building walls, both real and virtual, and repelling those who happen to be different. Over 50 years ago Martin Luther King spoke powerfully when he said: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” Today we can substitute skin color with ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation…

Now, I am optimistic that things will change, and the reason I am an optimist is staring me in the face. Namely, you. You have had the privilege of studying at one of the world’s great universities. You arrived as a unique individual and you graduate with fundamentally the same unique character, embellished, refined, matured, stretched, knowing the difference between truth and lies, making decisions based on the evidence, challenging prejudice and bigotry, knowing that life is not black and white, respecting others and judging people by the content of their character. Make truth, reason and love your priorities. You can change the world. And never forget to vote.

Now as good mathematicians and economists you know what truth is.

A group of students was posed the question: “What is two times two?” The physicist wrote a computer program and announced: “It lies between 3.98 and 4.02.” The philosopher asked: “But what do you mean by ‘two times two’?” The sociologist replied: “I don’t know, but it was nice talking about it.” The mathematician replied: “I don’t know the answer, but I can prove that an answer exists.” Finally, the economist replies: “What do you need it to equal?”

I should now send you off with a few tips for life, and these come from a dear American friend who lost her battle against cancer earlier this year. She led a fulfilled life that was full of laughter, generosity and grace and she was wont to say things like:

“Try to have at least one moment every day where you are perfectly content. Find those moments in your lives, and celebrate them.”

“Second, travel. Save your money, and go somewhere you’ve always wanted to go. If you have a friend a long way away, go see them. Don’t wait.”

“Third, accept the challenges you’re given, the crosses you bear. Be strong and courageous. Be full of grace.”

“Fourth, drink champagne, but not too much. If you have a favourite coat, wear it often. If you get the chance to buy an old Saab, don’t hesitate.”

“Finally, cultivate your family and friends. If a garden is to stay beautiful, it needs to be tended often. Friends are the same way.”

So, with your lives ahead of you, seize every opportunity that comes your way, strive for excellence in all things, abhor mediocrity, and be sure to have fun on your journey.

We have loved having you.

Now, go celebrate!

Well done.

Photo caption (from left): Professor Verity Brown (VP Enterprise & Engagement), Dr Anne Mullen (VP International), Derek Watson (Quaestor & Factor and Acting CEO), The Rt Hon Lord Campbell of Pittenweem (Chancellor), Professor Garry Taylor (Acting Principal & Vice-Chancellor), Professor Derek Woollins (VP Research & Provost), Professor Lorna Milne (VP [Proctor]) and Alastair Merrill (VP Governance & Planning)

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