Graduation address: Principal Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE

Lauren Sykes
Tuesday 28 November 2023

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Afternoon ceremony

In person

As Principal and Vice-Chancellor, it is now my duty, and my pleasure, to deliver today’s graduation address.

First of all, and once more, huge congratulations to each and every one of our students here on your graduation. You have done it; you came into this ceremony as a graduand, a noun meaning one about to receive a university degree, and derived as a word from the Medieval Latin gerundive form graduandus, from graduare, to graduate. You will shortly leave this ceremony as part of a procession of graduates, graduate being a noun meaning – obviously – one who has been awarded their degree, like you, hooray, and deriving from the past participle of the same Latin verb graduare. Those etymologies serve to remind you again, as this ceremony has, that in graduating from the University of St Andrews, you become part of the University’s long history, and its record of excellence and achievement.

As I mentioned in my introduction to this ceremony, it is possible to graduate from the University in absentia, normally due to reasons connected with personal circumstances or travel restrictions, and let me emphasise that those students who have graduated in absentia, some of whom may indeed be watching our live stream of this ceremony or who may be catching up with it later on YouTube, are as cherished as those in the hall now. We wish you could be here and we hope you have enjoyed the ceremony so far.

But by far the majority of our students prefer, if they can, to graduate in person, as you all here have, and to share that experience with their families and friends. We saw great evidence of the importance of this to our graduands during the summer of 2022 when we ran three weeks of graduation ceremonies so that, in addition to graduating the 2022 cohort, we could hold in-person ceremonies for those students from the 2020 and 2021 cohorts who had not been able to graduate in person but instead attended virtual conferral ceremonies during those years because of the global pandemic. Well over half of the graduates from those two years have returned to have the in-person experience in 2022 or 2023 because, as so many of them have said to us on the day, it is so important to them and their families and friends; it gives them that sense of real transition and completion that they had missed.

Graduating in person crucially gives you that very special experience, that quintessential rite of passage when you become something you were not, at the touch of the much dry-cleaned birretum. It is also highly inclusive; it majors on an experience that, while crucially individual, is also highly collective. You graduate individually and as part of a cohort, and beyond you are your relations and friends who share the moment today, all by association now very much part of the wider St Andrews community. Again, for those online, though at one remove, you are also part of this community, though we are sorry that we can’t virtually provide you with the super tea that awaits guests in the graduation marquee later today.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, to speculate what graduation from the University of St Andrews might look like in 2123. Streaming our ceremonies live already allows access to graduation remotely, but that access is dependent on the live experience. Will tech and AI have moved on so much a century from now that graduation will be experienced remotely, immersively, and yet collectively by those scattered across the globe, even featuring perhaps a hologram of me or one of my successors at the controls; or will this in-person ceremony which, while it has altered over time has yet proved so resilient, survive beyond all that as folk will still crave that utterly real time moment in the Younger Hall ceremony?

The lives that you go out into now, in further study or in the many forms of employment available to you, will be, as we all know, increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence. Elon Musk recently and notoriously predicted the demise of work as we know it. This prompted a letter to The Times newspaper from… well from none other than my own sister, who wrote as follows:

‘Sir [for the uninitiated, letters to The Times always start this way], Further to your report “AI means nobody will have to work, says Musk”. I am a solicitor. A lot of my job is already done by AI but what AI cannot do is reassure an anxious client going through a divorce or a fraught parent trying to move house. They do not want to talk to Cora, they want to talk to me.’

My sister is older than me and I have always tried not to argue with her, but I do myself wonder whether 100 years from now a gloriously reassuring and sophisticated robot will be doing people’s conveyancing, emanating a terrifying efficiency and constructed empathy that will do that job just as well.

What I am getting at here, of course, is that over your lifetime what ‘in person’ constitutes and offers in many spheres – education, work, healthcare, to instance but a few – is going to change dramatically as AI transforms experience. We cannot adopt a King Canute approach to this and try to hold back the tide of invention and change that is coming our, and particularly your, way. But as you head off to be the next generation of inventors, entrepreneurs, CEOs, politicians, and university vice-chancellors, I ask you to take with you the things that have been so special in your in-person ceremony today: the sense of belonging with and sharing with others; and the sense of achievement borne of your own work, but work also undertaken in a cohort, with people you have known, sat around with, done projects with, argued with, laughed with, wanted, simply, to be with, over a period of time.

In person will always have so much to offer of that quintessential sort too. It is where we experience our humanity, and that humanity, that capacity to empathise, to recognise and respect difference, has never been more needed than it is now. Maybe, as so often, my sister was actually right: nothing will finally be able to replace the recognition that comes from one human being putting themselves in another’s shoes and offering the hand of help. That is the essence of empathy, and I cannot remember a time when our world needed empathy and compassion more than it does now, and for the power and importance of those qualities to be understood by those who lead us.

Across the lives that lie ahead of you there will be, I am sure, ample opportunities to reflect, and act, on all of this. But for now you are here, you are graduates, and a lot of in-person joy lies ahead of you today. Congratulations again, and make the most of it all.

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