Graduation address – Professor James Naismith

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Newly graduated students

Wednesday 30 November 2011, 9.30am.

I want to welcome the parents and supporters to graduation, on this St Andrews day.

The University motto “aien aristeuein” “Ever to be the best”, I have taken both as a description of and instruction to, St Andrews graduates. To those graduates, well done from all of us.

I know that our graduates will want to say their triumph is a team effort. From holding helpless scraps of life, kissing better bruised knees, supervising homework, starring in teenage dramas, you, the parents and supporters, have ever been the graduates ‘best team’. So graduates, make it special for your special people, say thanks and give them a special hug, believe me, they have earned it. Childhood is short, parenthood is a life long vocation.

Those important tasks, done I will turn to the rest of my address. You’re thinking, ‘He’ll ask for money’. The University certainly needs it and don’t let me dissuade you from generosity, but I want to talk about the future, yours and ours.

In the long run, for you graduates the future is bright. This seems complacent, given we are living through the worst economic turmoil probably since the 1930s. Yet, we can exaggerate our misfortune. A St Andrews graduate reaching 20 in 1930 could look forward to a further thirty years of life. Those reaching 20 today can look to double that. Those extra years will be vastly healthier safer and productive. There is a lot to worry about, however the world needs smart, talented and hard working people like you; ‘aien aristeuein’ has been in fashion since the Trojan war and it has guaranteed success through greater catastrophes than this, it is the safest bet.

Today, you joined the General Council, remaining a life long member of the University of St Andrews, so what of our joint (St Andrews’) future? In the long run, this future is equally bright. As you make your way in the world, your actions are marked by your time here. There is no better advertisement for St Andrews, than being associated with each of you.

But as John Maynard Keynes said “Long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.” What of a useful and harder task, what of our immediate future?

If Universities were a sport, the UK is second to the US in the overall medal table, with golds for value for money and citations (a measure of research impact). I believe the education that a society provides is linked to the prosperity it enjoys. There are more than a few splinters in the eye of UK higher education, but society has ignored a builders yard of planks elsewhere. Universities are sailing in a particularly tempestuous sea; rocks are clearly in sight. Governments in Scotland and the UK are ending the University system as we have known it. To my shame as a Scot, the University of St Andrews has had little option but to charge UK students out with Scotland, £9,000 per year. My strong suspicion is that Governments and their oppositions are making up policy as they go, focused only on how ‘it plays in the media’ or ‘advances an agenda’. In today’s storm, we cannot trust the future of this world beating 600 year old Institution, to people whose concern is tomorrow’s headline.

The University of St Andrews has, in its 600 years, seen storms and wreck has seemed certain more than once. On each occasion, The University has been saved by its members, the best who saw the challenge, met it and steered us to safer waters.

Today’s storm is one of these rare but defining moments. There is no question that our actions will be judged by our successors, the only question is their verdict. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln “We, this generation, cannot escape our destiny. The storm through which we will pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to our successors.”

We, academics, graduates, their parents and supporters must navigate this storm. Together we cannot fail, but without all hands, the ship could be wrecked before the sea is flat again.

Will we Academics uphold the standard, “Ever to be the best”? I know we will try, but alone we are weak and transitory, those who pay the piper, will call the tune.

Parents and supporters, you are an integral part of a 600 year tradition of being the best. So can you spread the word to your families, friends, colleagues that a St Andrews education is something special? There are no more convincing advocates for St Andrews than you.

But it is to you, graduates, that the bulk of the task has fallen, each of you must choose. Will you abandon St Andrews, leaving it to the whim of ‘here today gone tomorrow’ politicians? Or, will you take the wheel, actively participate in the General Council, help improve teaching and research, help govern and renew the University and most importantly, ensure academics continue to play the right tune for your successors.

I want to impress you graduates one simple fact. There is not and never will be anyone more careful of and more important to, the continuing success of the University of St Andrews, than you its graduates and greatest achievement.

“Aien aristeuein” its also a challenge to each of you, will you?

Thank you and good luck.

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