Graduation address: the Rector, Catherine Stihler

Friday 23 June 2017

Principal, Chancellor, colleagues, graduates, families and friends.


After all the hard work, stress, deadlines, dissertations, essays, tutorials, seminars, lectures, library visits, books reservations, all-nighters, computer blips, fall outs, make ups, tears, laughter and soakings.

Today – our Class of 2017 - became something special. You are now a St Andrews graduate, and if you are still in disbelief, still recovering from making it across this stage in one piece, and believe me there have been some near misses this week –  just check today’s Herald or Courier because your name features in black and white –  no fake news – you are a St Andrews graduate.

You are now a graduate of an institution whose history dates back 600 years. Six hundred years of academic excellence. Six hundred years of learning and 600 years of imparting knowledge and creating new knowledge. You are now part of our 600-year-old story and no one can ever take that achievement away from you. 

Equipped with the knowledge that you have gained, the majority of you will now embark on the next stage of your learning journey or more commonly known as work. Using what you have learnt here over the past four years – you will transfer your learning to the organisation who is lucky enough to employ you. Thinking about what advice I could give you as someone who too has walked across that stage and sat where you have sat, I turned to a previous Rector for inspiration, J M Barrie. On the third of May 1922, he gave one of the most famous Rectorial addresses, his speech was entitled Courage. Many of his wise words are just as relevant today as they were all those years ago.

Let me begin with ‘attitude’. Barrie asks each one of us not to be ‘passive, sullen negative’, not ‘to stand aloof, despising, disbelieving’ but ‘to come in and help’. He repeats this by saying ‘insist on coming in and helping…as there are glorious years lying ahead of you if you chose to make them glorious’. The right attitude to serve, to not walk on the other side of the street, to come in and help, will create a future with possibilities which to you are unimaginable. 

From ‘attitude’ he leads on to ‘partnership’ and he encourages that you need to ‘Learn as a beginning how world-shaking situations arise and how they may be countered’. In management speak, it is your external environment which you need to pay attention to. In this vein Barrie encourages partnership, that by working together we can face our common problems and discover common solutions. Yet he places a caveat: ‘doubt all of your betters who would deny you that right of partnership’ with the exception of your Professors’. I like the emphasis on your – other professors beware!

Leading from attitude and partnership there is another nugget of advice - hard work. ’You will have to work harder than ever but possibly not so much at the same things’. The digital world which you take for granted but which my generation and your parents have had to adapt to, will transform the world of work and the way you work in ways we cannot even contemplate today. As the CEO of Cisco said at a breakfast meeting I attended in Brussels ‘disruption is the new normal’. Your resilience to cope with change and the courage to discover new possibilities will require hard work, attitude and partnership – all three qualities Barrie outlined 95 years ago. 

Just before I conclude, I want to mention two people today who encapsulate these three qualities of the attitude of service, partnership and hard work. These two people have ensured that today’s ceremony was a success. They work away, never appear on any stage and never appear before any audience. They ensure the right invites go to the right people. They ensure where you sit marries with the name which is read out when you reach the podium as well as a whole range of others tasks. Today marks their last ever graduation ceremony. For 40 years, Aileen Colford and Donna James have served our university community and graduation ceremonies. They have worked hard, with an attitude of service, and in partnership and I want to pay tribute to both of them. Please Aileen and Donna, who are sitting at the side here, please come up! Thank you – we will all miss you. 

So in conclusion – enjoy today. Celebrate. Remember Barrie’s advice of having the right attitude, of partnership and hard work and never forget that a little part of St Andrews will remain with you wherever you may go. Enjoy this first day as a St Andrews graduate. 

Thank you.

The Rector, Catherine Stihler