Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford: 2018 Graduate School Commencement address


(Remarks as prepared)

President Jenkins, Provost Burish, distinguished deans, ladies and gentlemen,

Good Morning

First and foremost I would like to offer my warmest congratulations to those of you who are receiving degrees from Notre Dame today. It is a fabulous achievement.

I very much hope that you enjoy celebrating your success and sharing the celebrations with your families and friends. This is a very big day for you, and one that you have earned through hard work and dedication. But it is a very big day for them too, so I hope you will pause for a moment, and reflect on what this day means to your families and friends, and that you will draw them into your celebrations.

The ability to empathise, (to, as Atticus Finch memorably told Scout, “climb inside the skin of another and walk around in it”) to see the world from another’s perspective, is a critical life skill, it is a hallmark of a vibrant democracy and a civilized society. It is one of the first casualties of warfare. You won’t find it in any matrix of government-stipulated employability skills. It isn’t easy to teach, though the philosophy that underpins this great university certainly tries. It requires practice.  I hope you will get some practice this weekend by seeing these celebrations though the eyes of your families and supporters and sharing it with them.

I remember the day I was awarded my own PhD, nearly 30 years ago. I ruined the lines of my Crimson robes by wearing a white ribbon in solidarity with the students bravely protesting in Tiananmen Square, while we celebrated in Harvard Yard. As I thought about this address I tried to recall the speech I heard that day. You have no idea how reassuring it is, when contemplating giving a graduation address, to realize that you have no recollection of who gave the speech at your own ceremony, much less that they said. What I do remember most vividly about that ceremony, was that I carried in my arms my three week old daughter. Having her with me was enormously important to me. I had filed my dissertation on the day she was due to be born. Ever since, I have advocated firm deadlines to my own graduate students. I’m quite sure that had she been due three months earlier, my dissertation would have been finished three months earlier, and conversely, had she been due three months later, it would have taken me three more months to finish.

I feel deeply honoured to have been invited to speak to you today. I’ve never been to Notre Dame before but I’ve heard about it for decades. I grew up in rural Ireland where not many girls were called Louise. I usually had at least 8 Marys in my classes at school. (My middle name is Mary so I wasn’t completely left out.) For a time I insisted on using the Irish or Gaelic version of my name “Labhaoise.” I became reconciled to my name only once I learned that Louise meant “fighting spirit.” So, for an Irish woman named “fighting spirit” to be invited to address the “fighting Irish” just seems appropriate, doesn’t it?

What propelled me from rural Ireland to the Vice-Chancellor’s lodgings in Oxford was, of course, my education, first from the nuns in our local schools and later, in Trinity College Dublin and Harvard. I believe that education remains the best engine of social mobility that we have. I hope you agree.

I hope too that throughout your careers, in whatever fields you have chosen, you will remain committed advocates for education as a source of social mobility. In recent years, in your country and in mine, a growing - and I believe unhealthy - divide is emerging between those with and without university education.

There is growing criticism of the cost of education. The best response I’ve heard to this criticism is Derek Bok’s quip: “If you think Education is expensive, try ignorance.” There is growing - and understandable – concern about the level of student debt in the US and the UK. There are persistent calls in the UK for “Value for Money” in education, with the value of an education being equated with the size of a graduate’s salary.

More troubling is the growing scepticism about the value of expertise and the legitimation of decisions based on emotion rather than evidence. We must all be passionate advocates of argument by reason, and evidence-based decision making. One of the graduates of my own university, a member of the British cabinet, famously said in the course of the referendum on membership of the European Union: “We’ve had enough of experts”. Personally I don’t think we have nearly enough experts.

Even more troubling is the analysis of voting patterns in the recent presidential election in this country and the referendum in the UK. In Britain 73% of those without university degrees voted for BREXIT and 75% of those with university degrees voted to Remain. Voting patterns were very similar in this country where educational attainment was a better predictor of whether a county voted for President Trump than age, race, class or income. Whatever one thinks of the decision to vote for President Trump, or to leave the EU, it is not good for universities to be isolated from the societies in which we live and work. Being an ivory tower is no longer an option for universities.

Just a few weeks ago I was in Prague speaking at Charles University. At a dinner with Czech academics that evening the conversation was about the recent elections, and the academics present expressed a mixture of surprise, dismay and incomprehension at the results. I sat back from the table for a moment and realized that I have participated in identical conversations in London and Boston, with only the names being different. I remember saying to myself: “I wonder if this is what it was like to be part of the ancien regime?” This is not a good place for universities to be. 

We must engage more systematically with the communities around us. We must persuade the public of the value of what we do, we must draw the public into an understanding of what we do, and persuade them of its value to our society, and our economy, and we must ensure that access to our wonderful education is fair, and seen to be fair. As you leave Notre Dame I hope you will commit yourselves to doing so.

You have earned advanced degrees from one of the great universities of the world. How fortunate you are. Your degree will be necessary for you to attain your first job and every one that follows, but your education, I hope, has provided you with so much more than a degree. John Stuart Mill, speaking at one of my former universities, the University of St Andrews, said: “Universities are not intended to teach the knowledge required to fit men for some special mode of gaining their livelihood. Their object is not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.”

Now those who have paid for your education may be a little alarmed by this suggestion, but I do think that Mill was on to something.

The fact is, that thanks to advances in technology, the pace of change in the world is faster than it has ever been. What’s more, the pace of change will probably never again be as slow as it is today. The reality is that you will probably hold positions in your lifetimes that we cannot even imagine today. The functional skills that you have acquired, and been tested on, and today are being certified, will in all probability have to be renewed and reacquired. (I’m afraid it’s too late to ask for your money back.) So it is more important than ever to think about Who you want to be, not just What you want to be.

When universities like yours and mine confer degrees we are also asserting that it has been our intention to promote certain qualities of mind. Our teaching has been designed to produce intellectual self-reliance, to teach people how to learn, how to take charge of their thoughts and how to direct them in an independent, analytical and creative manner. Often what you know is not as important as what you do with what you know. The crucial but also the most difficult qualities towards which our education is designed to help our students, are understanding, independence of judgement and the ability to distinguish the true, from the seemingly true.  These are the qualities that you take away along with your degree. These are the qualities that will sustain you in a life in which the world is certain to change. These are the qualities that a stable and successful society needs in each successive generation.

Every year the Oxford Dictionaries announce a word of the year. In 2016 it was “Post-Truth” reflecting its use in the presidential and referendum campaigns. It refers to objective facts being less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.  As Tacitus said over 2,000 years ago. “Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty”. With the 24 hour news cycle and instantaneous social media coverage, no time is accorded to inspection and delay. Contrast today’s instant news with the situation 200 years ago. Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo on June 18 1815. It took 4 days for news to reach London. In 1865 it took 12 days for word of Lincoln’s assassination to reach London. Today we would have instantaneous twitter feeds from the battlefield and selfies from Ford’s Theatre.

It has never been more important for universities to represent and to inculcate a respect for inspection and delay, for evidence, to educate the next generation to distinguish between the evidence-based and the fabricated. Above all, to see truth as an aspiration not a possession. As our graduates we are relying on you to seek out the messy truths behind the simple falsehoods and to make the case with us for inspection and delay.

I will not delay you further from the celebrations that I know you are itching to begin. (Not to mention the opportunity to observe the celebration of Anglo-American relations taking place in St George’s Chapel, Windsor this afternoon.) Allow me to congratulation you once again, to wish you every success and happiness, and to encourage you to empathise with others as you make your way in your careers, to make the case for education and for universities, and above all to insist on reason and evidence as the basis for your judgements and decisions.