Laureation address: Catherine Stihler

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Lewis Wood, President of the Students' Association

Thursday 28 June 2018

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Catherine Stihler.

I, like art most students when they arrive in St Andrews, had no idea what a Rector was. Like many students I wanted to spend my time trundling around town, reading books by the sea, and perhaps spending an occasional Friday night at the Bop.

Not only did I not know who the Rector was or what they did, but I also didn’t really care. To an extent, that’s what’s so brilliant about having a Rector; we elect someone who cares for us. Students spend so much time studying, event planning, working, and socialising, that spending valuable time on our University governance structure seems to be just another burden. You shouldn’t have to worry about what the University governance is doing; you should be able to trust that it’s on your side.

Catherine Stihler always been on our side, but she has worked hard her entire

life to show it. Her relationship with St Andrews began when she was a student here, later becoming President of the Students’ Association, and serving as a member of

St Salvator’s Chapel Choir. In keeping with convention, she also met her husband David in St Andrews, who has joined us today with their children and other members of their family.

After receiving two degrees from the University, in Internatinal Relations and Geography, Catherine proceeded to have a lengthy and successful career as a Member of the European Parliament, advocating for her constituents’ interests in Brussels. Her time in this capacity is now spent campaigning to shape Brexit.

In 2014 Catherine became Rector of the University of St Andrews, finishing her term of office last November. During her time as Rector, Catherine’s notable achievements have included the development of the Rectors’ Fund, a scheme to provide financial support to students participating in internships, as well as the launch of the Rector’s Inspire lecture series. She has also been a committed, involved and respected member of the University Court.

However, Catherine has not only been the “staunch student advocate” that we advertise the Rector to be; she has been beloved by three generations of St Andrews students. In the list of terms that one would use to describe Catherine, ’advocate’ is one of the last things that comes to mind, after ‘friend’, ‘champion’, and ‘supporter’; her outstanding job at connecting to students, assisting them, and always working in their interests is the reason that we are recognising her today.

I have been fortunate enough to work with Catherine over the past year and her support has been constant, freely-given, and limitless. It has inspired in me the utmost respect for her.

I am clearly not the only person to think this way, and when writing this laureation I spoke to many of the people that have been close to Catherine during her time in St Andrews. One friend, Pat Mathewson, said that Catherine’s “boundless kindness, warmth and generosity is something we will carry with us for the rest of our lives, and has shaped the St Andrews community for the better.”

These are sentiments strongly echoed by Annie Newman, Catherine’s Rector’s Assessor, who had this to say: “There aren’t words to describe the feeling of warmth and support you felt when you worked with Catherine. She had no ego to speak of, no desire for personal gain. She believed she could help, so she tried, and she always succeeded. There was no project too small or student not important enough. But even after all of her work advocating for the students in St Andrews and all of her energy put into boosting up even the smallest, most hungover fresher, Catherine provided the people of

St Andrews – young and old alike – with more than just an advocate or colleague. She was and is an example to all of us of how to succeed and make real change while putting all of the kindness and light you can into the world.”

Annie finished by saying that Catherine “joins the ranks of strong, consequential women in St Andrews’ history without whom it wouldn’t be the institution it is today”. 

I can't agree more with Annie’s words, and I would like to convey the wholehearted gratitude from the student body, and especially from all of us that have worked with you, for all that you have given to us. I can think of no person more deserving of this honour.

Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to the University of St Andrews, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on Catherine Stihler.

Response from Catherine Stihler

Well what can I say when so few words can describe the great joy and honour I feel in receiving this honorary Doctorate. Lewis, thank you so much for your speech, you have been a joy to work with. As has Pat, and I see Pat up there, it’s great to see you Pat! And also with Charlotte, who I’ve worked with, who couldn’t be with us. And I want to wish Paloma every success in her role as the future president of the Students’ Association. It was 24 years ago when I held the privilege of serving that role, and little did I ever think I’d be returning here to receive such an honour as this. I cannot tell you how much this means to me.

So I have just a few quick pieces of advice for my fellow graduates who are sitting here today. The first is: never forget those who have helped you get where you are today. Family, friends, the academics you have taught you, who may be sitting behind me. Maybe you don’t recognize them in their gowns, but some of them are there. And I also want to include the wonderful bedellus – I don’t know where John is, but he’s the one that’s been putting on these hoods and who has maybe caught a few of you as you kind of stumbled a little bit on this stage, and he’s a wonderful, wonderful man and I want to thank him.

Another piece of advice which is: I want to say thank you to a few people personally that Lewis has mentioned. My husband, David, who has put up with a lot in my working life as a member of the European Parliament and in serving as Rector. My sons Alex and Andrew. My parents, Gordon and Catherine. My sister, Morvin. My niece and nephew, who seem to be more behaved than Andrew has been. And most importantly I want to thank Annie Newman. It was Annie Newman who sent an email asking if I would consider standing. Annie has come all the way from California to be here today. If it wasn’t for you, Annie, who then served as Rector’s Assessor, I would not be standing here today, so thank you. And I see Dillan who was also my Assessor; thank you, Dillan. Both of you, it means so much. They actually gave me a ring last night with St Andrews on it that I’m now wearing, inscribed inside it with “Friends make St Andrews”, which was our hashtag when it was my Rectorial installation, and maybe some of you want to use it today because it just sums up so much.

But my next piece of advice to you is that I cannot believe it has been 22 years when I sat where you sat. So please live your life. Life is short, and the strange thing is, now just standing here, I don’t feel much older than you are because clearly I am! And I watched my eldest son, Alex, grow to become slightly taller than I am just now. And my youngest son, Andrew, catching up there. And believe me, becoming quickly the shortest person in my family is a physical embodiment of the fact that life is short.

So, live your life. Challenge yourself. Grab every opportunity that you have. And something really special: always know that you all have a St Andrews community to support you wherever you are in the world.

You’ll be leaving this hall today as a St Andrews graduate, which leads me to my final piece of advice: celebrate! You’ve achieved something special, so savour every single moment. You’ve been given the gift of a world-class education that has potential to change and to transform our globe. Use that knowledge. Believe in yourself. And go out into this world with the confidence that you can make a difference. And boy, do we need people in this world to make a difference. So congratulations, and thank you.