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St Andrews New York Gala Benefit: Principal’s address

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
10 December 2014


Professor Louise Richardson

Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is wonderful to be here this evening to celebrate one of the greatest universities in the world, in one of the greatest cities in the world.

600 years is a very long time. How many institutions, organizations, governments, can you think of have been around that long? Not many.

To give you a sense of just how old we are: scholars have been coming to St Andrews to study, teachers to teach, and students to learn since:

  • Before the printing press
  • Before the construction of the Forbidden City in Bejing
  • Before the construction of Machu Pichu in Peru
  • Before Joan of Arc waged battle.
  • And before Columbus arrived in the Americas.

We have lasted this long because of the enduring value of what we do. Universities like ours serve:

  • As Foundations of our Democracy
  • As Guardians of our Culture
  • As Engines of our Economy
  • As Drivers of social mobility
  • And always, as generators of new ideas.

Our first graduate was a young man named William Yellowlock who graduated in 1414. I often wonder how he would react if he were transported back today. The town would be recognizable, three streets leading to a big cathedral on a cliff overlooking the North Sea. He would be surprised by the comfort of our lives, by the clothes, the electricity, the cars, the girls. But the basic model would be very familiar to him: Scholars congregating to work together and curious students travelling to learn from them.

We have had longstanding links to the United States for several hundred years: three signatories of the Declaration of Independence studied or received degrees at St Andrews. Today, almost a fifth of our students come from the US.

We have had an extraordinary history. Our Rectors have included John Stuart Mill, Rudyard Kipling, Alexander Haig, Jan Smuts, and J M Barrie. At a speech in St Andrews Mill said: “A university exists for the purpose of laying open to each succeeding generation the accumulated treasures of the thoughts of mankind.”

Another Rector, someone who has done so much for the city of New York, was Andrew Carnegie. He participated in our 500th anniversary celebrations and gave generously to the university to mark the occasion. He once memorably asked: “What is the proper mode of administering wealth?”

He dismissed leaving it to one’s heirs as injudicious paying it in death taxes as the just punishment for selfishness, and concluded that the only sensible thing to do is to give it away while you are still alive.

He then had an ordered list of who the beneficiaries of that largesse should be. At the top of the list was universities.

We have had many remarkable discoveries, from the first meridian line, to the first kaleidoscope, to the science underpinning the first LED light. Today our astronomers are discovering new planets, our biologists are helping find cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and sleeping sickness. Our classicists, historians, philosophers and poets are writing critically acclaimed books. Our marine biologists have been measuring the melt in Greenland’s ice cap and figuring out why so many seals around Scotland have died with strange spiral injuries. Our social scientists have demonstrated that Right-to-by-housing initiatives have not increased social mobility. The research of our psychologists never fails to produce fascinating findings. They recently demonstrated that cheekbones are an indication of a man’s trustworthiness; that women are attracted to men who look like them, and that eating vegetables makes you more physically attractive.

But one thing we have never done, is build an endowment.

I joked when I was leaving Harvard at the end of 2008 that one of the advantages of moving to a university with no endowment to speak of is that you don’t have to worry when the endowment collapses.

I once imagined that one of our Founders, Bishop Kennedy, instead of spending £5 on a mace had instead invested just £4 in an endowment. At a compound rate of interest of 6% that endowment today would be worth, wait for it: £ 7,705,531,696,618,710 (7 quadrillion, 705 trillion, 531 billion, 696 million, 618 thousand, and 710 pounds.) It would have grown by over 1 quadrillion, 600 trillion in my 6 year tenure. Sadly, he opted for the mace instead. We still have it. It’s very beautiful, but we could do a lot more with an endowment. Better late than never, I say.

We need this endowment so that future leaders of the university can invest in an unfashionable idea, can recruit brilliant but impecunious students, can retain star researchers, and buy time for promising young scholars. We are the third most highly ranked university in the UK, in the top 1% globally, and we have done this on a shoe string. Just imagine what we could do with an endowment.

Today, we are a unique combination of ancient and modern: with the greenest laboratory in Britain close to one of its oldest chapels. Of local and global: with 45% of our students from outside the UK. We are the ideal size for a university, big enough to be interesting yet small enough to be intimate. Big enough to attract the best academics and most competitive research funding, small enough that the philosophers get to know the physicists; that the students are taught by those who write the books; that we can transform the lives of every student who comes to us.

Our goals have not changed since three French educated Scottish clerics sought papal approval for the foundation of a university in Scotland in 1412.

They haven’t changed since the impoverished Andrew Carnegie arrived in the US with his family in 1848.

They haven’t changed since John Stuart Mill told a St Andrews audience in 1867 that the purpose of universities was to produce capable and cultivated human beings.

We are adapting the way we achieve these aims and diversifying the background of those who benefit from this education.

But we will never lose sight of its core and enduring value.

We can build a future worthy of our past, and ensure that when our successors come to celebrate our 700th anniversary, they will take pride in our accomplishments.

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