Skip navigation to content

« Back to news items

Graduation address - Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton

Friday 13 September 2013

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws


Chancellor, principal, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen on behalf of all the recipients of honorary degrees I offer our thanks and our congratulations on the occasion of this great University’s 600th anniversary. Now there was a time when St Andrews was seen as the end of the earth, a place to hide holy relics, to escape the wrath of foreign kings and armies.

St Andrews has never been a place for calm seas and that’s a good thing because out of the churn and chop arise creativity and excellence. Today this is where things begin, teaching that opens the world, research that improves the world - even a love affair that enchants the world. Nurtured by academic freedom and public investment in Higher education this is a place not only so rich in tradition but also in potential.

Now for a newcomer like myself there is a lot to take in: how high on the shoulders to wear the gown, what do I do if I step on the PH, can I take a May Dip in September? So I could use a little guidance. Maybe some of the students here would be willing to take on another academic daughter; I have brought plenty of raisins in case you take me up on it.

I do take comfort from knowing there is a long tradition of Americans being warmly welcomed here at St Andrews. Every year I learn you educate more than one thousand American students, exposing them to new ideas and perspectives as well as according them with a first class education. I’ve been proud and fortunate to hire a few St Andrews alumni over the years and I thank you for training them so well.

As one of the world’s great universities you are also home to many American scholars and teachers and as I accept this honorary degree I’m well aware I follow in the giant footsteps of another well-travelled American diplomat, Benjamin Franklin. Thanks to St Andrews we know him as Dr Franklin. In addition to his degree, Dr Franklin’s visit in 1759 left him with a lasting affection for Scotland and relationships with leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment including Adam Smith and David Hume and Henry Home. Later Dr Franklin described his visits to Scotland as periods of the densest happiness he had ever known. I will be taking some of this “dense happiness” home with me.

Sharing this stage with such an accomplished group of scholars, scientists, writers and thinkers is daunting, I confess. Just listening to the descriptions of their accomplishments and reading more detail about each of them in the programme we see how much each has already contributed to the understanding of the world and of ourselves. But this is not only a retrospective about their great accomplishments individually; I think we have already heard from this podium today, this is a call to action as well.

Their work tells us much about the challenges we face in the 21st century as well as the opportunities that we can and should seize together. Some of the scientific findings and scholarly interpretations expand our awareness while others pose questions that cause consternation.  But all serve the high mission of truth-seeking – the only firm foundation or personal and political decision-making.  Today we see, all round us, challenges to the arts and the sciences coming from different directions. One of our honorands already spoke out about the absolute necessity of nurturing the arts, the so-called liberal arts, not only because of what they have already given us, but because of the promise of what they will continue to offer those who pay attention going forward.

With the sciences we have a different kind of challenge. Everyone loves science when it agrees with their pre-existing conception about what should be the discovery and its interpretation, but that is not what science is for. And science equally needs protection from interference and political abuse.

I send greetings to Peter Higgs who could not be with us today because of illness, because when one thinks about his theory at the University of Edinburgh in 1964 that maybe a sub-atomic missing link actually existed and would help to explain how the universe fits together in a unified pole, lay people probably didn’t pay much attention but it lit up the world of physics and all that came after. And last year a team of physicists working in a tunnel deep below the Swiss Alps using the most powerful particle accelerator ever construction finally identified that elusive particle. Now I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies or even the most simple explanation of particle physics, but this discovery struck a chord with me.

In my recent work on behalf of my country in international affairs, we too grapple with how to make sense of a world that is deeply interconnected and interdependent but afflicted by group denial of real-word evidence and rejection of tolerance for views outside traditional thinking.  I would love to find a particle that would help put the pieces of diplomacy together. We see it every day the need to understand this interconnection and interdependence because of advances in technology and communications events that were once isolated ripple across the globe. It’s not only that a flu in Canton can become an epidemic in Chicago or a stand-off in the Straits of Vermouth can spike the price of oil in Aberdeen, and cut the profits of factories in Glasgow, it’s also that the courage of one young girl in Pakistan can inspire millions across the globe to defend access to education and opportunity. And a brilliant idea hatched in a flat in Fife can become a global business that improves the lives of millions. 

That is the power in interdependence and whether some like it or not countries and communities are more connected than ever before, and certainly as one of our honorands has already demonstrated with his work, increasingly the real world mirrors the virtual world – an endless series of links in effect a world-wide-web of interdependence surrounds us.  Now that networked world opens enormous opportunities for growth and innovation that also feeds complex cross-cutting challenges like climate change, economic equality, the proliferation of dangerous weapons and perverse ideologies.  Nations, businesses and citizens alike have to adapt to this fast changing world we all have to work better, smarter and more collaboratively and institutions like St Andrews must help lead the way.

In a time of dwindling government resources in many parts of the world, I speak especially from my own country, while we have increasing environmental stresses it’s more important than ever to focus on what we mean by sustainability. This university has survived and thrived for over 600 years so you know something about this. Now it cannot be done without high standards even uncomfortable truth-telling and without academia injecting its work into public debates without fear of intimidation or retaliation. Consider my fellow honorary Lord Oxburgh. He was the chairman of one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, he was also a scientist who could look at the evidence and see where our planet is headed. So he shocked his industry colleagues by becoming a leading advocate for reducing carbon emissions and developing clean energy technologies. That’s humanity’s only hope, he says, and he’s right but he can’t be a lone voice, there needs to be a growing chorus of academics, of decision-makers and business and politics and citizens making the same case.

Or take Dr Jane Goodall the legendary conservationist and ventriloquist for primate sounds.  She taught the world to better understand and even cherish chimpanzees and other endangered species.  Now she is lending her voice and expertise to a cause near and dear to her heart and mine – saving Africa’s elephants who face extinction in the next ten years, because of a dramatic rise in poaching driven by armed groups and international criminal networks. Globalisation is helping kill these animals by opening vast new consumer markets for ivory so we need a global effort to save them. 

St Andrews Prize for the Environment in partnership with ConocoPhillips is spurring exactly the kind of innovation that comes from taking academia and having it work with the private sector help to shape what the private sector both understands and is willing to do and getting support from government to move forward. I appreciate, in particular, St Andrews funding in 2011 of a clean, safe and affordable cooking stove. Now when I first began talking about cooking stoves there were, I could tell, some rolling eyes, some murmurs like “there she goes again, where’s the hard power that really matters in the world” of course I prefer to talk about smart power - neither hard nor soft alone can produce what we want in the world of tomorrow - and a simple example of that are cooking stoves.

Cooking stoves kill more than two million people each year, twice the number from malaria. In addition it’s the fourth leading cause of death now in the world mostly for women and children breathing in the toxic fumes. What St Andrews has done is develop a stove that will help families in developing countries avoid toxic smoke from open fires and furthermore if someone says that’s all nice, but what does that mean to me? It will help decrease the pollution from soot that adds to global warming.

And the way this stove has been constructed, it will serve as a source of much needed electricity because a single day of cooking will be able to fully charge a mobile phone. This was music to my ears but it was an example of academics using your skills and knowledge to solve a real world problem that then, as Secretary of State, I could hold up as an example. Because I started an organisation called The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves which has been working towards the goal of 100 million homes adopting clean stoves by 2020. It’s this kind of synergy that I am seeking and encouraging as we grown more interconnected and our societies become more diverse in addition to helping each other learn to solve problems and finding ways to use evidence to do so.

We need more voices speaking up for universal human rights. We’ve honoured some of the great advocates here today who have spoken out courageously for women’s rights, gay rights and religious understanding, showing us that our communities and institutions are strongest when equality and opportunity are opened to all people and freedom of conscience is respected.

Here in the home of the Scottish Enlightenment, and the great contributions from Scottish universities, we need to be reminded that it paved the way for much of the progress we now take for granted, not only in the West but around the world. And it is important that, as we chart our way forward in this new century, we bring with it the enlightened view that every individual around the world regardless of gender religion, race, ethnicity or orientation  should be able to contribute to their societies and to have the chance to live up to his or her God-given potential . 

I wish to commend St Andrews, which broke a barrier when you became the first of Scotland’s ancient universities to be led by a woman.  That’s an important milestone it’s a great symbol because the equality for women everywhere remains one of unfinished mission of our time.  As we think about the work of those who have been honoured today, read those descriptions and remind yourselves how many times it’s implied, if not stated, explicitly that they swam against the tide - that they found areas of scholarship that were not conventional and traditional. 

They took what they had learned, what they had experienced and brought it to the world.  We are confronting deep cultural and political differences, change can be very wrenching and it is difficult to bridge the gaps between and within societies. We will never agree on everything we won’t agree on where to go to dinner, what to have when we get there and we won’t agree about how to structure economies or how to improve governance but spirited and principled debate is the lifeblood of democracies. And today our democracies are under stress.

It is more important than ever that we rally behind what started here and elsewhere where the individual was endowed by his creator with those rights that enabled first men, and slowly women, and others, to be full participants in their society. And now we need, in this new age, participation on a much grander scale to make the case for the importance of those fundamental values. 

Few have explained this better than the former Rector of St Andrews, John Stuart Mill, you are all familiar, within On Liberty he argued that a free and open marketplace of ideas is the only way to advance knowledge and move towards truth and understanding. I think our marketplace of ideas is busier than Mill could ever have imagined. And here at St Andrews you are right in the middle of it.

We did just mark the 50th anniversary of Dr King’s march on Washington. And I was thinking about how today we need even to expand his very moving aspirational words. We need, not only to judge one another by the content of our character, but by the content of our minds and our hearts. Universities like this one bear a special responsibility. In his inaugural address as Rector in 1867 Mill said that the university exists for the purpose of laying open to each succeeding generation the accumulated treasures of the thoughts of mankind. And he told students later that day “you and your like are the hope and resource of your country in the coming generations”.

I would only slightly edit those words to say that you and your like are the hope and resource of our world in the coming generations. We look to you to help shape the ideas that will address the great challenges of our time ideas that will originate in your libraries, in your laboratories, in your conversations, in your debates.

We look for you to be part of a great movement of young people across our world who will not settle for the lowest common denominator, who will not give up your right to be heard who will not take the easy path of conventional agreement with ideas and policies that are neither founded on evidence or common sense.  We need you to be in a new vanguard for the kind of changes that we are seeking that will make a difference in this world,  this networked world where we know more about what goes on everywhere than we used to know about what went on next door.

We cannot succeed without great institutions like St Andrews continuing to speak out, to break barriers and we cannot succeed without young people who are willing to walk through those openings and help chart a new path for us all. So on behalf of all of my colleagues who have been so honoured today we regret we could not have been with you on the 500th anniversary but we are delighted to have been with you on the 600th.

We thank you for this great honour but we also leave behind our hope and a challenge that in the years ahead St Andrews will continue to be a place of learning, a place of ferment, a place of excitement that will be looked back on in years to come as one of the engines of the kind of changes our young people our world so richly deserves.

Thank you very much.

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton