Opening graduation address

Wednesday 1 December 2010

The following Graduation Address was delivered by Professor Jan Bebbington (School of Management) on morning of Tuesday 30 November 2010.

Kia ora … my role in the proceedings today is to send you out into the world with a few words that might linger with you as you think of the significance of this ceremony and also what has brought you to this point in time.

Long before the snow arrived I had decided to talk about the journeys we take in life … partly because it is an apt metaphor for a graduation ceremony but also because journeying is a recurrent theme in our honorary graduate’s life.  If you have not already been there, I encourage you to look at Richard Long’s website … and the stories he has inscribed through walking in landscapes, creating textworks and sculptures along the way.

We all undertake journeys, mostly without really thinking about it … whether it is the bus to work, the train to London the airplane to New York.  Only when the weather is like it has been these last few days (or if volcanoes in Iceland erupt) do we pause to think about how mobile we have become.

It is a truisum that our world is interconnected in ways it has never been before.  Of course, you can’t be a student in St Andrews and not have the feeling that comes with being in a place that was a destination for pilgrims and other students over several hundred years.  Likewise, the ability to live in a relatively small town on the edge of Fife and live and study with people from all over the globe is part of the joy of being here.

The key difference between the past and our current time is the speed and frequency with which we can move about the globe.  Indeed, globalisation and its many impacts (both good and bad) is one of the enduring motifs of our times.

And while a particular point in time always seems special to those who are living in it, three interconnected challenges seem to have converged at this point in time.

First, we face an uncertain economic outlook where the certainties of growth and the benefits that it has brought may no longer exist.

At the same time, there are multiple concerns about the state of our natural environment.  The highest profile of these concerns is that over global climate change (which is not necessarily about all places around the globe warming) but equally there are concerns about water availability and quality; biodiversity and soil fertility.  All of these lead to a concern that the natural world may not be able to provide services that support human wellbeing and prosperity.

Third, the world remains a radically unequal place.  Moreover, some commentators observe that in the rich world increased affluence does not correlate directly with increased wellbeing.  Diseases of affluence (such as obesity) dominate headlines in the UK while in other parts of the world people lack access to basic medical care and adequate calories.

The planet and our global society is therefore also on a journey as well.  Collectively, Governments around the world are seeking to understand how they might develop in ways that are environmentally sustainable and socially just.  The Scottish Government, for example, states that its central purpose is for all of Scotland to flourish and has set in place the most demanding greenhouse gas reduction trajectory in the world to support that goal.  At the same time, medics across Scotland are trying to understand the complex but pernicious differences in health outcomes and quality of life that are experienced by the richest and poorest of Scottish society.

But this is a celebration … so I will not dwell more on the various aspects of life that challenge us … you will know what challenges emerge from your own discipline’s concerns whether it be in the area of chemistry, economics or computer science … whether it be knowing what the possibilities for peace are in a world full of conflict or understanding what history tells us about our pasts as well as our possible futures.  Or whether it be about how creativity in all its forms can bring to the lives we live.

Your journey within this world will be shaped by your discipline but also by the qualities that you bring to that task.  Working in the area of sustainable development is sometimes a pretty gloomy business and one of the best insights that I gained during the last year from one of the students graduating here today is how to hang onto hope in hard times.  Hope is not about a unrealistic daydream that everything will be fine in the end … rather, David Orr (an educationalist) talks of what he calls ‘practical hope’ which is the hope that “comes from doing the things before us that need so be done in a spirit of thankfulness and celebration without worrying about whether we will win or lose”.  Wherever life takes you, I hope that you will be able to take some practical hope with you but I equally hope that you wil not have too much need for it.

To date, I have focused on your journey as you have progressed through your degree but now I want describe what your journey looks like from the other side of the lectern.  I don’t imagine that you think much about the journeys that have brought your lecturers to appear in front of you with ideas, insights (and hopefully) inspiration to share.

My own journey towards being here started with the realisation that I didn’t wish to work as a tax advisor for the rest of my life (a realisation that might not surprise you at all).  While I knew what I didn’t want to do, I was a bit at a loss as to what I did want to do so I returned to University and did a Masters degree.  To fund the degree I undertook some teaching and found that I liked that very much and after that my path in life was pretty much set.  I then had the chance to work with and undertake a PhD with a leader in my field (then at the University of Dundee) … and that resulted in a unexpectedly long stay in Scotland (I was supposed to be here for just two years – but that was 20 years ago now … Scotland, as you will all know, is a very seductive place).

The biggest thrill of my job (which I know is shared by many of my colleagues) is being a part of the journeys that you make when you are here.  I can recall the first time I met some of the graduating class here and recall how scared you looked at what was before you, how pleased you were to meet each other and (in my case) how exciting it was for you to be the first class to study for a MSc in Sustainable Development at St Andrews.  Over the last year I watched you having to think hard and put in the hours to realise your aspirations.  Each semester I could see that you had grown in knowledge about the world and in confidence about yourself.  BUT it was not a false confidence of knowing it all, but knowing that you were developing a framework for thinking more systematically and clearly about the world and making a difference in it.  No matter what your subject area is … this is the journey that you have all been on and will continue to travel wherever your life takes you.

It is a huge pleasure for me, and for all your teachers who are here today, seeing you at this stage of the journey:

  • surrounded by your friends and families
  • by your classmates
  • with many friends looking on via the weblink …
  • having achieved you goal
  • and although our global future is highly uncertain, facing it with the confidence and ability to shape what will come.

It has been my pleasure and privilege to join you for part of that journey. I sincerely hope that you will keep in touch in the future as we are always delighted to hear from you.  I would like to thank you families for entrusting you to us and wish you and them a wonderful rest of the day and safe eventual onwards journeys.

Richard Long

Honorary graduate Richard Long after the ceremony.

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