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The Rectorial address

The following Rectorial Address was delivered by Kevin Dunion, Rector at the University of St Andrews during his Installation this afternoon. (Tuesday, 3rd March, 2009.)

Rector Kevin Dunion OBE. (Credit: Peter Adamson)

Vice Chancellor, my University Court colleagues, distinguished members of academic staff, my student constituents, ladies and gentlemen.

Can I start by observing that some people get to take their oath of office in English – and still can’t get it right? So if anyone is concerned by my deficient delivery of the Latin oath as Rector, I am sure the Principal would be happy to follow Presidential example and administer it again, (or perhaps not) away from the nerve wracking scrutiny of the Classicists amongst you. For nothing is going to detract from the pleasure I feel today in being installed as your Rector.

I would like to thank at the outset the Academic Registrar and her staff for the arrangements for this installation; Kathleen and Andrew for their kind words; and the choir for those typically quirky pieces. My thanks also to all of you for taking the time to come here and make this occasion so special.

But above all I want to thank the students who made this possible. Firstly my dedicated student campaign team, who seemed to be everywhere. I am sure they will not mind if I single out my Campaign Manager, Georgina Rannard. She first approached me to be Rector, and then coordinated activity to make sure we had a great result on election day. Little wonder that she was my first choice as Rectors Assessor – and what an excellent choice she has been.

But of course I want to thank all of the students who voted, and not just those of you who voted for me – although I’m eternally grateful to the nearly 1000 of you who did – but also those who supported my worthy opponents Colin Fox and Sir Chay Blyth.

Because in many ways the continuing relevance of the Rector is affirmed by a keenly fought contest, as ours undoubtedly was, and by a healthy turnout at the ballot box. Here in St Andrews electioneering is compressed into a solitary week; and students have to vote at only 3 polling stations for the whole university – and one of them closes early. It is astonishing then that so many of you voted – and my thanks to all of you.

I am pleased, however, that discussions are underway to look at what we can learn from other universities which have on-line voting or provision for absentee ballots for those unavoidably absent and to give candidates more time to make their case to their electorate. For this is not a student election ¿ this is a university election to choose the chair of Court, in which the electorate happens to be students.

The right to elect a Rector is enjoyed only at St Andrews and 4 other universities – Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. This democratic tradition, by which an outsider, independent of the university management, is placed by the students at the head of the supreme governing body of the university, has been challenged from time to time but remains defiantly vibrant. Students do not need me to be their advocate, rather as Chair my role is to ensure that their voice is heard at Court and answers are given especially where tough choices have to be made, when there may not always be agreement.

I am pleased to welcome some of my fellow Rectors here today. We are all what is now termed working Rectors – committed to devoting time to the job. Since November I have been meeting with class representatives and senior students, supporting student events, attending debates, listening to protestors, as well as helping with individual students’ problems.

Not all of my distinguished predecessors saw this as necessary. John Stuart Mill famously took over 2 hours to deliver his Rectorial Address (I promise I won’t take nearly as long) – but was never seen in St Andrews again.

Rectorial addresses in St Andrews tend to expound lofty themes; Rudyard Kipling praised Independence (of mind not nation) – emphasising to students the need to come to their own conclusions. J.M.Barrie (author of Peter Pan) spoke of Courage, about not leaving decisions to others, but instead demanding a say in decision making. His was an address so well regarded that it was published- in fact I was presented with a first edition during the Drag yesterday.  It was also lampooned by John Cleese when he chose Cowardice as his Rectorial theme.  For we had a string of Rectors whose trade was humour – Cleese, Alan Coren, Frank Muir – and they produced marvellously entertaining addresses which have somewhat spoilt things for the rest of us drab mortals.  My advice to Rectors who follow me is not to read them. And for goodness sake on no account read the address of Stephen Fry as Dundee Rector. It will turn your knees weak with fear, envy and a faint hint of loathing as the full majesty of Fry’s brilliant, outrageously camp, wit is revealed. Yet even he claimed to be daunted at having to give what he described as (and here you have to imagine his fruity tones as I quote) “a mother of a beast of a mongrel bitch of a full flown address, an oration that the university will have printed, bound and distributed to stand as an enduring monument to your idiocy.” As if he really believed such a fate would befall him – the author of The Liar is a liar.

However there have been some very glum speeches from this platform. The great explorer Nansen regarded the giving of this Address as the chief duty of the Rector and delivered an 8000-word peroration. (Honestly mine ­is much shorter.)  But he cheered me up when I read that he greatly doubted whether students would remember a word of what Rectors had to say.

But what to talk about, especially if you can’t do a stand up routine? One of my predecessors helpfully suggested that the subject of a Rectorial address should be the ‘mess the rector himself has made of life.’

I could certainly do that. For even though I now appear to be respectably appointed as Rector, my life has been that of a professional troublemaker. I have travelled around the world seeking- as the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid put it – to be where extremes meet. That is where friction and conflict is to be exposed. So I have found myself in a jeep careering down the hills of Gujarat in India to escape pursuing security guards. I had been taking photographs to publicise the effects of the massive dams which were displacing thousands of landless tribal people, and that was an arrestable offence. I got away. I was slightly less lucky in Honduras when the vehicle I was travelling in was commandeered at gunpoint and I spent an interesting day wondering what was going to happen when we finished delivering military supplies to the machine gun posts along the border with Nicaragua. It was in Nicaragua I learnt how to move about in an area where landmines have been placed (you walk in single file with each person taking a turn at the front) in that way hopefully only one person will be the casualty if one is stood on. I have to say from time to time the thought did cross my mind ‘how did you get yourself into this mess’.

I could say more but my mother is here and I am not sure I have told her even about these episodes.

The point is that I have spent a lot of my working life here and abroad, in places and on issues, where relationships have broken down- between society and government; between communities and big business; between local people and experts, and common to this breakdown has been a collapse of trust.

Now it strikes me that trust is a somewhat naive and unwanted concept in an academic setting. When I came here, as a history student, almost the first thing I was taught was not to trust sources. We were handed The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa, and then invited to draw conclusions about the fact that it was written by his uncle the Bishop of Freising. Unsurprisingly his account of his nephew’s deeds was that ‘the boy done good’. Or words to that effect. We were made sceptical. In the natural and social sciences it is empirical research, through experiment or observation, which is central to testing the validity of hypotheses. Trust doesn’t come into it.

Yet on leaving university we move into professional life where trust matters – a lot. It matters when we are entrusted with the power and resources to take decisions which affect people’s lives and livelihoods. It matters especially where the public have to trust us because they feel they lack the ability or technical knowledge to adequately question our expertise.  Trust is not an issue of blind faith, but an issue of judgement. It is at its strongest where people judge that our central motivation is to serve the public interest. It is also given where people feel reassured that not only can those in the professions or business be trusted to act in a way which is consistent with societal norms, but also that they have the reassurance of strong regulation.

And the good news is that such trust has remained remarkably strong – at least, that is, if you are a doctor, a teacher or – as those behind me will be pleased to hear – a professor. “Trust me I’m a doctor” – medical or academic apparently- still rings true.

The bad news is that polls show that if you ask 100 people whether they trust a politician or a journalist to tell the truth only 20 of them thinks they will.

The even worse news is that trust is eroding, as we come to terms with egregious banking failures, dwarfing the previous financial scandal over endowment mortgage mis- selling. The consequences of putting profit over public interest can be truly tragic, as the inquiry by Lord Archer of Sandwell into why patients with haemophilia had been infected with HIV and hepatitis C from contaminated blood products has shown. He said last week that ‘commercial interests had been given a higher priority than patient safety’ and as a consequence over 2000 have since died.

No wonder that, across the developed world trust in government, business and media is at an all time low.

Rebuilding trust will not be easy- but it has to be done. Central to this process is transparency. President Obama used his Inaugural Address to say of government, “we have to do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

In the light of day. It means people must have information so that they can hold decision makers to account. Freedom of information laws are a powerful tool in this.  Here in Scotland information has been released, as a result of freedom of information appeals, which would never previously have seen the light of day, – such as the surgical mortality rates of clinicians in Scotland’s hospitals; details of major public contracts worth billions; and advice to Government ministers.

Of course sometimes information cannot be disclosed – to protect national security, criminal investigations, personal safety and so on. But alarming claims of possible harm are often made to try to prevent the release of information which, whilst it might discomfit those in authority, would do no harm to the public interest. As Scottish Information Commissioner I have been warned that my decisions will stop the flow of good advice from officials; will mean companies no longer tender for public contracts; even that people will be hurt or die as a result. None of these dire consequences has come to pass.

Those in authority must also remember that the purpose of freedom of information is not just to winkle out the occasional document. Here in Scotland at least, the stated aim is to try to build public trust, by tackling an endemic culture of secrecy in public authorities – which is most ingrained within government and the civil service. If that is to be done then the challenge is to show to people that the public interest is being put above political or personal self-interest.

That task is made more difficult, then, by the unedifying sight last year of members of the Westminster Parliament- on both sides of the House- trying to exclude themselves from the UK Freedom of Information Act. And the decision last week by Jack Straw UK Minister of Justice to veto the publication of the Cabinet Minutes dealing with the Iraq war, having failed to persuade an Information Tribunal that they should be kept secret, can only encourage the public to cynically conclude ‘plus ca change’ – or some more Anglo Saxon utterance along those lines.

The culture of secrecy is far from an English disease. I am not saying for a moment that Scottish Ministers and MSPs have not shared their counterparts’ views on how information has been used to criticise them.  But contrast the actions of the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer (a St Andrews graduate, by the way) who published full details of all MSPs expenses when required to do so- almost entirely defusing the issue – with the tortuous attempts at Westminster to prevent or obscure the equivalent disclosure for MPs.

There are indications of divergence between the old Westminster model which places a premium on Parliamentary privilege and strong single Party government, as compared to the modern Scottish experience of government since devolution

South of the border freedom of information legislation has been described as not having a friend in Cabinet and has been under almost constant threat since it was introduced. There have been unwarranted and unworkable proposals to limit the number of information requests which could be made, largely to inhibit ‘the wicked media’ as the BBC Scotland’s Political Editor (also a St Andrews graduate) jovially describes it. And now there are explicit threats that the law will be amended to mean that certain types of documents e.g. Cabinet minutes are absolutely exempt from freedom of information.

This is in stark contrast with the situation in Scotland where the number of people appealing against decisions of public authorities to withhold information is falling; and where the Scottish Government is now actively engaged in discussing whether the right to information should be extended, not curtailed.

Freedom of information may be a right – but it is bestowed by politicians, and can be diminished or removed by them. The outmoded instinct to view with suspicion anyone who has the temerity to ask questions, and to avoid full disclosure, remains the default position of too many in authority.

To prevent this we need an overwhelming expression of modern thinking in public life, which recognises that accountability takes place daily, not just through a vote every 4 or 5 years ; and that accountability is not just through Parliamentary Questions but to every citizen who asks.

So I hope the audience here do not mind if I close my remarks by addressing my student constituents. You have the capacity to transform society. We need a whole generation coming into government, public service and the professions which has nothing to fear from transparency; which sees that public accountability is part of modern democracy; and above all knows what it takes to deserve public trust. You are that generation.

Deserve trust. I know it is said that nobody really remembers a single word of a Rector’s speech, but if you could manage to recall those two, deserve trust, you would be doing us all a great service.

Thank you for listening to me.

ENDS

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