Opening graduation address

Thursday 27 November 2008

The following address was delivered at the morning Graduation ceremony on Thursday 27th June by Dr Claire Whitehead, School of Modern Languages.

Dr Claire Whitehead, Chancellor Sir Menzies Campbell and Principal and Vice-Chancellor Dr Brian Lang with the honorary graduates and their laureators. Credit: Ede & Ravenscroft.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, graduates of the University of St Andrews (sounds good, doesn’t it?), it’s a great honour to be addressing you on this special day.

Every year, my colleagues and I are touched that so many of our graduates, and their friends and families, make the effort to travel from near and far to be with us for graduation. What is interesting is that when you look around this hall today, the people gathered here tell you a great deal about the sort of university this is. Although we’re located in a small town on the windswept coast of Fife, we attract an impressively international student body from as close to home as Cupar and as far afield as Malaysia. What better proof does one need of St Andrews’ desire to be an internationally Scottish university? It is fitting that this morning’s ceremony sees arts and science students graduating side by side because this is an institution which encourages innovative cross-faculty and interdisciplinary links in both its teaching and its research. And a ceremony like today’s also demonstrates that St Andrews is a broad church, proud to honour students from different walks of life for a wide range of notable achievements. We have seen graduates collecting MAs, MScs, MLitts and PhDs and have bestowed honorary degrees on Barbara Rae, Simon Pepper and Sir Jackie Stewart. For those of you sitting down there, it may well feel as if this is the culmination of the hardest few years’ work you’ve done in your life; but spare a thought for our three great Scots up here who’ve had to give a lifetime’s distinguished service (painting countless canvasses, attending University Court meetings, or risking their lives doing 150mph in a racing car) in order to earn their degrees.

But time, as Albert Einstein once said, is a funny thing. You can spend anywhere between one and five years earning your St Andrews degree; but then you and your family spend only a few hours in our company today. Walking across the stage to be congratulated by our Chancellor and having your degree bestowed upon you with a dab of those ancient breeches takes perhaps less than a minute; and yet your newly-achieved status of being a St Andrews graduate is something that will last for the rest of your lives; it’s permanent. And the value of such permanence should not for a minute be under-estimated. It is only some six months since our last cohort of students graduated; and yet the world feels like a very different place these days. The last few weeks and months have provided a stark reminder of the fickleness of many valued commodities: owning an oil field is far less of a licence to print money now than it was in May; those Citigroup shares which once seemed so infallible now look distinctly dodgy, whilst that Damian Hirst diamond-encrusted skull perhaps no longer seems like such a wise investment. As a consequence, there seems little point denying that the world which you go out into as new graduates is a far tougher place than we’ve been used to over the past few years. However, fear not. It is precisely in such febrile times that the qualities which you possess thanks to your St Andrews degree will prove their worth.

The University of St Andrews has been educating young minds for almost six hundred years. And you should take succour from the qualities and reputation which have been developed over this long period. Indeed, an event earlier this week provided many of us in the university with an opportunity to reflect upon the implications of our history. On Tuesday, Dr Ian Rankin, another of our honorary graduates, officially opened the new Museum of the University of St Andrews which is located on the Scores. This is the first museum of its kind in the United Kingdom – and there are some wonderful exhibits housed within it. You can, for instance, admire the collection of medals commissioned by the winners of the annual Silver Arrow Competition held during the 17th and 18th centuries to determine the champion student archer. I wonder perhaps whether an updated version of this event should be reintroduced into our annual Raisin Weekend celebrations. Another of the museum’s sections is dedicated to the contributions made by university staff through the centuries in areas such as theology, philosophy, politics, literature, astronomy and biology. This tradition is alive and well as my colleagues continue to work to extend the boundaries of human understanding. And it is absolutely fitting that a further section lauds the achievements of our students through the ages: from George Buchanan, the 16th-century historian and humanist scholar to the cyclist Chris Hoy who won three gold medals at this year’s Olympics. But what is most striking about a visit to our museum is the opportunity it affords not just to look backwards but also to look forwards.

The University of St Andrews has a wonderfully rich and vibrant heritage which deserves to be celebrated; but it also has a very keen sense of the realities of the present and the demands of the future. As you leave us today, be assured that you have nothing to fear from the current uncertain times because since 1413 St Andrews has been striving to produce and to nurture independent, humane and courageous minds who are able to meet any challenge. Whether we have taught you about the intricacies of international politics; or how to appraise the relative values of a Titian or a Whistler; or about the implications of biocontrol and bioethics, more than anything what we hope you have learned is how to learn. And that that fundamental lesson stays with you always. We hope that in years to come when you cast your mind back, you will have fond memories of your time in St Andrews. We hope that the friends that you have around you now will remain friends for life and that you will make more through our various alumni associations and events. As you move forward and embrace the future, be an ambassador for our university in whatever you do and wherever you do it. And, who knows, in another six hundred years’ time, visitors to the Museum of the University of St Andrews may well be looking at a display lauding the contributions you have made to the world.

Congratulations on your achievements and the very best of luck for the future.


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