Graduation Address: Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Sally Mapstone FRSE

Graduation Office
Thursday 13 June 2024

Thursday 13 June 2024

‘Born to run’

One of the many privileges and pleasures of being Principal and Vice-Chancellor of this University is the opportunity to engage with our wonderful students, across the course of your time here and then at this key moment as you head off to the next exciting stages of your lives and careers.

Everyone is here to celebrate you, what you have achieved, and what you are going on to achieve. This is your day, and everyone here wants this to be as special for you as we can make it; but we know that you also want to recognise those who have helped enable your success – your family, your friends, your tutors, and indeed your fellow students. Let’s all express that individual and collective appreciation once more.

One of the other privileges and pleasure of being Principal and Vice-Chancellor is the people one gets to work with, many of whom you can see on this stage here, members of my senior team in the Principal’s Office, and also the magnificent academic and professional staff who have taught and supervised you or supported your work in a myriad of other ways from admissions, counselling, library services, careers advice, to fundraising and IT. We are all very grateful to them too, so thank you colleagues.

There are also though in this hall, not on the stage, but down the sides and behind the scenes, people in my team and the graduation office (be aware please that that office is primarily two people), registry, security, who all work pretty much non-stop in the weeks up to graduation to ensure that you are here on the day in the right order, the right clothes, with the right hood, and that everything works like clockwork. Those people are on call from the start of today till the very end, and many of them will be clapping you out at the end of the ceremony. Let’s say a thank you to them now.

Ceremonies like this bring us all collectively together in a shared appreciation of our students and their achievements. But perhaps inevitably there are things, often in the form of cultural reference, that set us apart. Over the eight years that I have been giving these graduation addresses I have chosen a range of titles for them, several of which reflect my own popular culture music archive.

Those titles have included: You Can’t Always Get What You Want; School’s Out; and The Graduate, a range of allusions that tie me securely into the 1960s and 1970s, and which the occasional piece of audience participation in these ceremonies has revealed to be – how can I put it – variously generationally recognised by this audience.

Well, I am afraid I am doing it again today, having given my address today another 1970s title; Born to Run, in reference to the 1975 song and indeed iconic breakthrough album of the same name by ‘the Boss’, Bruce Springsteen. I already have evidence that – astonishingly – this may be a challenging reference to some of this audience. One of my previous executive assistants, Lewis Wood, who was also a twice over graduate of this University, and a former President of the Students’ Association, gave me a totally blank look a couple of years ago when I made a Bruce Springsteen allusion. I was horrified; how had Lewis gone through his life, a life I might add which had included a devoted attendance at gigs and music nights at our Students’ Union venue 601 and around the UK, oblivious to this massive Western popular culture figure. I was moved to give Lewis as a Christmas present Renegades: Born in the USA, a great book of conversations between Springsteen and Barack Obama – Lewis had heard of President Obama.

One moral of this little story is to encourage our graduates today to stay curious, step outside your cultural reference points, read, see, taste, visit things you have not heard of to date but which mean a great deal to another person. You will not always like them (Lewis has, politely, never commented on whether he now enjoys Bruce Springsteen as an artist) but they will take you to different places, and difference is something we should go on exploring and seeking to understand throughout our lives – it keeps us inclusive. I try and do as I would be done by here, I should say, and I have hugely learned from the books and music that Lewis has taken me to over the years, which I would never have found without him.

But this also speaks to a key aspect of Born to Run. Its iconic cover features a black and white photo of Springsteen affectionately leaning on the shoulder of his long-time saxophonist the late Clarence Clemons, the only E-street band member ever to be on an album cover with Springsteen. As the US Senator Cory Booker has memorably said, what that image conveys is that – these are his words – “we are better when we love not only those who look, pray, vote like us; we have the chance to have a greater transcendence, a more flourishing life contribution if we can find a way to truly love with a greater breadth and intimacy than we most often see”.

Both the song Born to Run itself and indeed the album are even more relevant perhaps to you now than they are to me. Springsteen was about 24 when they were written and they characterise the gamut of emotions that one feels in your mid-20s – the oscillations between desire and despair, the wish to run both towards things and away from them, the pull of ambition and the pulse of disillusion. The album itself does not seek to resolve that tension, letting it play out to the listener so that we ourselves have a choice as to where to locate the album’s key moments and messages.

And that is of course the kind of choice you have ahead of yourselves. Life is rarely straightforward. It is punctuated by demands, choices, and decisions, and it inevitably contains a fair amount of muddle. But you go into the next stages of your lives equipped with a skill and value set out of St Andrews that we hope will enable you to explore with ambition, cope with difficulty, embrace difference, and feel on many occasions the joy of being born to run. But just not immediately in the procession that shortly follows.

Congratulations once again.

Posted in