Graduation Address: Professor Brad MacKay, Deputy Principal and Interim Dean of the Business School

Graduation Office
Friday 14 June 2024

Friday 14 June 2024 – afternoon ceremony

Vice-Chancellor, honoured guests, colleagues, families, friends, and most importantly, our brilliant graduates…

I want to begin with a hearty congratulations to you all. You are an exceptional group of graduates, for whom we are all very proud. You are not only celebrating the successful completion of your degrees from a university widely regarded as the very best in the UK, but you have also done so in what have been very challenging times. This makes your achievements that much more extra-ordinary.

And while they are rightfully your achievements, they are also shared by the families and friends, the faculty and staff who have supported you through the highs and the lows, the ebbs and the flows of this St Andrews journey. So let’.s show our appreciation with a huge round of applause and a cheer.

As we gather here today to celebrate your remarkable achievements and bid farewell to this chapter in your lives, I am reminded of the Chinese proverb, ‘May you live in interesting times’. And, oh my, have you all lived through some of the most interesting times in recent human history.

Of course, that very phrase was popularised by a speech given by Robert F Kennedy in Cape Town, South Africa, on 7 June 1966. Except, he began by saying: “There is a Chinese curse that says, ‘May he live in interesting times’.”

The actual origins of the proverb, and whether to live in interesting times is a curse or a blessing, is, however, somewhat disputed. For example, In The Book of Insults, Ancient and Modern, penned by Nancy McPhee and published in 1978, she attributes the phrase to an old Scottish curse, but that, as far as I am aware, remains unfound.

It is much more likely, quotation sleuths tell us, that the phrase stems from correspondence between the American politician Frederic Coudert and the British Nobel-prize winning, if controversial, statesman Sir Austen Chamberlain, brother to the future Prime Minister, in the 1930s. In the introduction to an issue of the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science in 1939 on The Preservation of Democracy, something that is of no less importance today as it was then, Coudert writes about correspondence he was having with his old friend Chamberlain where Coudert ended a letter with the rather banal remark, “we are living in an interesting age”.

In Chamberlain’s reply to Coudert’s letter, he told a story from a British diplomat in China that the Chinese used the phrase as a curse to be “heaped upon an enemy”. Of course, Chamberlain himself had never visited China.

As someone who makes his living from studying the interactions and vagaries of business, economics, and politics, I see it not as a curse, but very much as something to be celebrated.

When in human history have we lived in dull times? It was not dull times that brought us the Magna Carta, the establishment of this university, in fact, the Scottish enlightenment, the industrial revolution, the discovery of penicillin, the Civil Rights movement, landing a person on the Moon, the world wide web, TikTok or Taylor Swift. The latter of whom appears to have the ability to move economies in a few days in ways that prime ministers and presidents could only dream of. And, who knows, perhaps a future graduating class will be able to earn a joint honours degree in Swiftenomics and Swifteography.

But it is true that, to paraphrase another musical giant of our time and, importantly, an honorary graduate of this university, Bob Dylan, “the times are certainly a-changin”.

The times, I would argue, have always been a-changin. Indeed, the Athenian politician and general, Pericles, who no doubt would have had the good sense to also have been a graduate of this university had he lived today, is reputed to have made a similar claim almost two-and-a-half thousand years ago when he said that you never step in the same waters twice.

We are living in interesting times, and your time here at St Andrews has been a testament to your adaptability, determination, and unwavering dedication to excelling, irrespective of what the world throws at you. From late-night study sessions to passionate debates, first online during the pandemic and, more recently, in labs, lecture theatres, and seminar rooms here in St Andrews, you have faced challenges head-on, overcoming them with gusto, and emerging stronger, wiser and more resilient because of them.

It is important to remember it is not calm seas that make skilled sailors; it is the turbulent waters that truly test one’s mettle. What fun would the May Dip have been if it had been in the Mediterranean rather than the North Sea? Or Raisin Sunday, if you knew what mad receipt your academic children were about to bring back to you? Or attending a ball without your wellies? Or partake in Scottish tablet, a sweet so potent with a mixture of butter and sugar that some have argued it should be reclassified as a class A drug.

As you set sail into the vast ocean of life beyond this corner of North East Fife, equipped with the invaluable experiences, lessons, knowledge and friends that you have gained here, know that you are well prepared to navigate whatever interesting times lie ahead, irrespective of whether you have a plan for your future or not.

The world is unpredictable, filled with twists and turns that we cannot always foresee. As the saying often attributed to Scotland’s national bard, Rabbie Burns, says: “there is no such uncertainty as a sure thing”.

Yet, it is in these times of uncertainty that the possibility for creativity, discovery, growth, and transformation abound. Sometimes the most rewarding and purposeful careers emerge from the completely unexpected. So, embrace change with open arms, for it is in these moments of upheaval that our true potential emerges, and the entrepreneurial opportunity to fashion a more equitable, prosperous, and sustainable world.

And never doubt your ability to change the world. As Kennedy pointed out in his address in Cape Town, it was:

“A young monk [that] began the reformation,
a young general [who] extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth,
and a young woman [that] reclaimed the territory of France.”

So, as you venture into the next phase of your journey, remember to stay true to yourselves, to your passions, and to the values instilled in you during your time here at St Andrews. Lean into the challenges that come your way with confidence, for they are the blowin’ winds that will carry you to greatness.

I say to all of you as a blessing not as a curse, may you live in interesting times. Revel in the unknown, cherish the memories of your time here at St Andrews, and go into the world with courage, determination, and an unyielding belief in your ability to shape the world for the better around you.

Congratulations again on what is a momentous achievement, and may your future be filled with endless possibilities, exciting adventures, and the promise of a brighter tomorrow!

For, as Dylan says:

“The order is rapidly fadin’


…the times they are a-changin.”

This is your time graduates.

Good luck and haste ye back!

Thank you.

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