Laureation address: Dr Rita Gardner

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor William Austin, School of Geography and Sustainable Development

Wednesday 27 June 2018

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Dr Rita Gardner.

“Men Wanted! For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success.” The apocryphal advert of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic (or Endurance) Expedition still holds undeniable appeal, the imposing presence of his statue outside the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington, London is ever present, an iconography to inspire some and challenge others.

Rita Gardner CBE, was Director of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers), the world’s foremost geographical society. Appointed in 1996, she stood down earlier this year after successfully leading the society through a period of decisive modernisation and expansion. She is widely celebrated as having greatly enhanced its public profile and influence. Today, the Society’s work engages some four million people worldwide each year and its members and fellows, who number sixteen thousand, are drawn from more than one hundred countries. The Society is now internationally regarded as the “voice of Geography” and as Director, Rita led a programme of strategic change and modernisation, promoting a diverse and inclusive ethos.

Prior to joining the Royal Geographical Society, Rita Gardner held academic posts at King’s College London (1979-1994) and at Queen Mary College, London (1994-1996), where she was Head of Environmental Sciences. She has published widely, and has led and participated in major international research programmes studying environmental change, most notably as Director of the Department for International Development-funded Soil Erosion and Conservation Project in Nepal (1990-1997).

Rita was educated at University College London obtaining her Bachelor of Science degree in Geography in 1976 and in 1981 she graduated from the University of Oxford with her DPhil. From 2006-2010, she served as Advisor for Geography to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, and remains actively engaged with the Department for Education on Geography curriculum matters. She has served on numerous national and international committees, including Non-Executive Director of the British Antarctic Survey, Chair of the Academy of Social Sciences Working Group on Open Access Publishing, Senior Advisor to the British Council, and Secretary General of the European Association of Geographical Societies. She is the holder of the Busk Medal in recognition of her academic work, and in 2003 was awarded a CBE for ‘Services to Geography’.

Rita Gardner has certainly been a friend and supporter of Geography at St Andrews for which I thank her today. In the words quoted earlier “honour and recognition in case of success” must certainly belong to Rita Gardner; her example of modern leadership is a response developed through a shared vision and collective effort, but nevertheless underpinned by personal vision, intellect, passion, charisma, commitment and sheer hard work.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to geographic education, her impact on the public understanding of contemporary geographical issues and her notable service to the development of the discipline of Geography, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Dr Rita Gardner.

Response from Dr Rita Gardner

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, academic colleagues, parents, friends, other supporters and most of all, today’s graduates. Thank you for the most amazing and unexpected honour. I’m absolutely delighted to join your celebration graduates, as you start your careers -  and well done indeed to all of you.

Bill has spoken of my leadership. Many among you - and parents forgive me if I address the graduates today - many among you will also become leaders of the future. Leading scientific experts, leaders of organisations, or leading entrepreneurs perhaps. Aspire to be the best that you can and lead your own life as well, to the full. It’s a gift to be cherished, your intellectual gifts and your life. Leadership - as Bill has already mentioned - for me, is often a shared endeavour. I’d like to thank the many staff - the whole geography community in the UK and many others who have helped to shape and share a vision and to work together to make it happen. It’s been a real privilege: exciting, fun, challenging. And I’ve had to dig deep at times to lead that process with energy, hard work and a real belief that you, one, can make a difference.

From my own experience and watching others, the most important three lessons I have learned are as follows. First, follow and relish your deep interests. What you are passionate about. They will light up your life and demonstrate a career direction for you very probably. And those passions may very well be in the subjects you have graduated in today. Secondly, make the most of the opportunities that crop up. Be open to them. Be open to where they will lead you - grasp them, make the most of them. And you will never indeed know what doors they may open. And thirdly, be yourselves and believe in yourselves. If you want to do something enough, if you want to achieve something enough, you will find a way of doing it. So, to put it rather bluntly - go for it.

And finally, if you’ll excuse me I will address the women in the audience. As the first female director of the Royal Geographical Society in its whole history, I, and some other women of my generation, had to overcome one or two challenges. But women today, for you in the audience, it’s a golden generation. It really is. More opportunities than ever, and more need than ever for women leaders stand equally - and that’s equally in profile, in pay and in numbers - alongside male leaders. We bring, as women, a different style often to our leadership and a very complementary one to male leaders.

So finally, you could not have had a better start in life than graduating from this great University today. I hope you all truly realise your aspirations as they develop over the next few years. And once more, huge congratulations to you all and many thanks to the University for conferring this award on me.

Thank you.