Principal's Commemoration Day speech

Published: 27 June 2012

Text of Address Given by the Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, Professor Anton Muscatelli

Commemoration Day

Wednesday 13 June, 2012

Bute Hall


Chancellor, Honorary Graduates, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

May I add my warm congratulations to our newest Graduates.  We are delighted to welcome you into our Alumni community.

Of course we all know that this is Diamond Jubilee year – a time to celebrate the Queen’s 60 years on the throne.

It certainly hasn’t passed us by.  On 27th March this year, our Chancellor and Clerk of Senate took and delivered to the Queen the loyal address of the University, and received her response, at a special reception in Buckingham Palace. 

This particular honour is only granted to what are described as ‘Privileged bodies’ – not  I hasten to add that this refers specifically to the Chancellor and Clerk of Senate, however richly deserved that accolade might be, but of course it refers to the University itself. 

Commemoration Day Jackie Bird‌The University, along with the other 3 Scottish Ancients and some 23 organisations throughout the UK, share this status, the origins of which go back, in some cases, to the 17th Century.  The Queen has received the Privileged Bodies in person on such special occasions  as her Accession in 1952,  her Silver Jubilee in 1977, the Golden Jubilee in 2002, and now on her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

There was a time when such an invitation performed an important function.  It meant that some bodies were granted direct access by the sovereign, to the sovereign...and why?

Because they were considered to be institutions that mattered.  It allowed what were deemed to be some of the most important bodies in the land the extra-Parliamentary ear of the Sovereign and the opportunity to express their views on the state of the nation! Today, the event is largely symbolic and ceremonial.

The event, to my mind, did raise an interesting question.

While we can accept that Privileged Bodies and their meetings with the Queen are now largely symbolic in practice, there was nothing symbolic or ceremonial around the principle that established the concept, the title, in the first place.

If once upon a time, in centuries past, we, the University, were seen to matter and be important enough to have such recognition, do we have such recognition, are we seen to matter beyond the ceremonial honours and niceties, today?

I suspect it won’t knock you down if I were to tell you that I passionately believe that our place, our purpose, still matters, still has something to give to the beating heart of our nation today!  And that for me is the truth that lies behind the ceremony! We may be an ancient privileged body, but we’re one that’s agile and fit for today, strong and relevant for tomorrow.  Yes, we do matter.

Our history and heritage say as much.  In our message to the Queen we celebrated a snap shot of our achievements over the 60 years of her reign.  It was a period where, among many other achievements, we have pioneered experiments using ultrasound, subsequently publishing the first images of a foetus;  developed the internationally accepted Glasgow Coma scale; published groundbreaking research papers relating to Trypanosomes; completed and published the epic work, the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary; we undertook landmark studies on the use of statins to prevent heart attacks; we pursued pioneering work in such areas as nanotechnology and in penetrating the deepest mysteries of space and the founding matter of our Universe.

Now, in the best tradition of all tribute lists, I am 100% certain that I will have missed out the favourite achievement of 99% of those present. So apologies for that!

But we’ve been around far longer than 60 years! The list of achievements over 560 years could keep you here a very long time – and I promise I will spare you the vertigo of that particular list, to borrow something from Umberto Eco’s 2009 exhibition at the Louvre. 

Commemoration Day honorary graduatesSuffice to say we were a seed bed for advances in science, engineering and medicine in the late 19th century; a crucible for the industrial revolution; a cradle of the Scottish enlightenment, and since our foundation, an advocate for the pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination. 

We have played our full part in the development of ideas, in the creation of knowledge, all of which have shaped not just the landscape of Scotland, but far beyond.

But if our achievements, past and present, speak of why we matter in today’s world, the responsibilities we carry tell the same story. 

Indeed, Universities if anything carry more responsibilities in today’s world than they did in 2002, at the time of the last Jubilee.

Stefan Collini in his recent book ‘What are Universities For?’ puts the point this way, arguing that universities ‘have become an important medium - perhaps the single most important medium – for conserving, understanding, extending, and handing on to subsequent generations the intellectual, scientific and artistic heritage of mankind.’

And as it’s 2012, can I make an Olympic analogy? This is our Olympic torch, the torch we carry, the one we hold in our hands.  Just as we have received from successive generations, from countless scholars and teachers, it’s now our time, our day, our responsibility, to care for knowledge and pass it with care, to those who follow.   That’s one of the great privileges of being part of a University as old as ours - it so naturally enables you to feel the continuity of knowledge, as it moves down & across the years, changing and evolving but always growing out of what has gone before, to shape our times, inform our debates, ignite our curiosity.  And we can’t drop, lose or let that flame go out under our watch.

And the flame is still burning, brighter than ever.

And that’s just as well, because the challenges of current economic times need what Universities such as ours can provide. It’s no exaggeration that the world economy is in the middle of the most severe economic slowdown since the Great Depression. Indeed, there are several parallels between the current financial and economic crisis and the 1930s. But one of the most striking features of the 1930s Great Depression is that it saw some of the most remarkable technological advances, and some of most striking productivity gains in the 20th century. These would subsequently fuel the economic recovery of the 1950s and 1960s. And university research and innovation was at the heart of that.

There are parallels with today. As a research-intensive University we are not only producing the technological fuel of the future, but we are also producing the social and cultural capital of the future.

Even if we focus on the measurable (and not everything can be reduced to measures) over the next 4 years we are investing a cumulative sum of just under £100m in revenue spend – mainly in new academic posts. In the next 5 years we will be investing at least £128.7m  in our capital plans and £55m in refurbishing facilities, and after that our spending will accelerate as we develop our new campus just next door on the grounds of the Western Infirmary. Over the next 10 years we will be investing more than the equivalent amount of the Commonwealth Games. We have grown our international student numbers faster than many other UK universities, doubling our total numbers in the last four years. We are regularly amongst the best UK universities in terms of student satisfaction. We are in the upper quintile of the Russell Group universities in terms of research income per academic.  

But it’s not just the things we achieve, or the knowledge we pass on that matters! Just as important are the values on which all of it is based!  These matter too.  And so it’s vital that Universities are places which allow and encourage, as Stefan Collini said in his lecture on John Henry Newman, an ‘untrammelled quest for understanding’.  We should be places that value independent thinking, the capacity to pursue ideas, thoughts, assertions with open and intellectual rigour.  And we continue to value perseverance in the pursuit of excellence – whether in the way we teach, learn, or research.

We will soon be upon our graduation season – a great and happy time in the University calendar.  You can see the pride and joy of fulfilment on the faces of the graduands, as they pass across this podium.

But as a University we should be proud at that moment too – proud of the fact that we have had the opportunity to fulfil our responsibility for passing on in Matthew Arnold’s words ‘the best that has been thought and said’.  We should be proud of the opportunity we have had to promote the values of learning and intellectual study, aptitudes that will make a difference to all our graduates as they learn to live, work and hopefully flourish in this increasingly complex and challenging world. 

And that’s why a day like today is so important.  We are indeed a privileged body! For in welcoming you, our newest honorary graduates, we are also proudly aligning and identifying ourselves with your talent, your achievement, the best of human endeavour.  We now have the privilege of welcoming you, our Honorary graduates into our community – enfolding you in our history and our future too.  And that’s important!  It’s a sign to all who come here of the qualities we value and which we seek to promote.  We need role models, dare I say, heroes in the academic world just as anywhere else – and that’s what you are – role models, beacons of what is possible to us and to the students of tomorrow.

In this Jubilee year, when a sense of history, continuity and aspiration is around us, we as a University, reinforced by days such as this, should lay hold on all three: our wonderful heritage; our continuing care for knowledge; our ambition for the future and say, with confidence, just as we mattered to ages past: we do and we will matter to times ahead: we have a role to play in the health, wealth and wellbeing of our nation, and we’ll play it, whether as an ancient privileged body or one of the top 1%  universities in the world.  We have a strategy in place, the resources to invest, and the talent to deliver – we’re on the move… just watch this space.


Thank you,

Professor Anton Muscatelli

Principal and Vice-Chancellor

First published: 27 June 2012

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