2004 Press Releases

20 Dec 2004


Conferring ceremonies concluded today (17 December 2004) at University College Cork with over 500 students conferred from the Faculties of Commerce, Science, Arts and Food Science & Technology. There were 116 from the Faculty of Commerce followed by 42 from the Faculty of Science. Twenty eight were conferred from the Faculty of Food Science & Technology and 342 from the Faculty of Arts.

The Conferring addresses were given by Keith Sidwell, Professor of Latin and Greek, Head of Classics Department, UCC (see below) and Professor Gearóid O Crualaoich.

Conferring Address by Keith Sidwell, Professor of Latin and Greek, Head of Classics Department, UCC

"What's in a Diploma?"

Vice-President, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Graduates - or should I say, Diplomats? It's always worrying to be asked to address a conferring. The real business is over - the long and anxious march to the podium ("Is my tie straight?", "Will this hat stay on?"), the smile, the handshake, the clutching of the scroll ("What on earth language is this in?"), the nervy turn of the head towards the unexpected camera, the equally long and worrying march back to the seat ("Which way did they say to go?"), the warm and deserved applause from family, friends and faculty. Now you've got the class photograph, the framing of the parchment, the congratulations of your teachers and - most of all perhaps - the buffet to look forward to. Only the speaker stands between you and your cuppa. On this occasion, that's me. So I've had to ask myself - as every conferring orator must - what words of wisdom or encouragement I can offer that will make the brief interval between those very real sets of pleasures pass with the least amount of disturbance to your buoyant mood.

I've chosen for my brief intermezzo a question a vital importance to all graduates from this ceremony: "What's in a Diploma?" Now I'm aware that you already know what's in your Diploma. However, it's not a particular question I'm trying to answer, but the more general one; the one a classicist like myself might call "looking for the Platonic Idea of the Diploma". The Idea, that is, from which all Diplomas draw their Diplomaness.

You will be amazed, not to say staggered, dazzled, bewildered and, of course, eternally grateful to know that diploma originally meant something folded in two. It's a Greek word and can be found in the works of the philosopher Aristotle describing the parallel streams of the Milky Way and in the medical writings of Soranus evoking the position of the foetus in the mother's womb. Now you'll be acute enough to recognise that these meanings have nothing to do with what you've just been handed here. But you're probably, all the same, feeling a bit miffed. ("Hey, wait a minute, mine isn't folded in two. It's a scroll."). So let me explain that later on, especially during the Roman period, the thing folded in two was most generally a letter. That letter could contain all sorts of things. It could be a receipt for the payment of taxes. It could be a licence to use the public postal system. Mostly, though, it was a recommendation of this sort: "I am pleased to inform you that the bearer of this letter is a bona fide Roman citizen and would be pleased if you would allow him to go wherever he wants." In other words, it was a passport.

Now, I hope, you can see why this etymological investigation was worth conducting. Because a "passport" is exactly what those Diplomas you've received are. They may not actually be folded in two, any more than they are -despite their names - written on parchment, but they will serve as evidence, whenever you present yourselves at a border-post, that you have the credentials to pass on. That border-post may be within your place of employment. It may be between one place of employment and another. It may be at the entrance to a higher degree. No matter. Your unfolded Diploma is this University's guarantee to the world that you have been weighed in the balance and not found wanting.

But -just before you breathe a collective sigh of relief ("Hey, that's great, just about three minutes! Where's the tea?"), I've one more thing to add. The word Diploma is obviously enough at the root also of the word "diplomat", because the diplomat used to carry a diploma, to protect him from harm when visiting the territory of a foreign power. Modern diplomats may not actually carry the physical piece of folded paper, but they still operate as the representative of one nation and its interests within the jurisdiction of another. At their best, diplomats are also diplomatic. That is, they deal tactfully with the, often, delicate matters in the troubled waters that separate the views of one state from another - or sometimes even with those that divide citizen from citizen within the same state.

I'll cite a concrete example. It comes from an ancient Greek satirical writer of the second century AD called Lucian. He's been singing the praises of a philosopher called Demonax, a man a lot like himself - the sort of person who doesn't mind bursting the bubble of other people's pretensions. Like the time when he once saw a rich man giving himself airs because of his all-wool overcoat with the Armani label, as it were, and leant over and whispered in his ear, taking hold of the cloth and pointing to it, "A sheep wore this before you and was still nothing more than a sheep!" Well on this occasion, there was a serious political crisis in Athens, the city where Demonax lived. It led to an acrimonious exchange of views within the city's governing assembly. Harsh words were being bandied. The temperature was rising sharply, and fast. Enter Demonax. So well respected was he among the people - who realised that his jokes were designed to help folks to live better and more peaceable lives, and not simply to needle - that his mere appearance caused them to feel deep shame. They instantly stopped squabbling. You might have expected at this point a speech, or at the very least a jest from Demonax. But the diplomat always knows when enough has been done to have an effect. Seeing that the Athenians regretted their recent behaviour, he simply turned on his heel and walked out again.

What has diplomacy and in particular this ancient Greek philosophical diplomat got to do with you, the most recent of UCC's Diplomats? Well, I want to draw another analogy between all those other folded-paper carriers and you, today's scroll-bearers. Your qualification has been hard won, entailing a great deal of work by yourselves, and loving support by your nearest and dearest. I congratulate you on the achievement and your loved ones on their unswerving background work. But perhaps you don't yet realise that the winning of this award puts you in a unique and important position in our society. You know the importance of study. You know what it has done and will do in future for each of you individually. You know also how much care and effort the staff of the College have put in to help you achieve your goals. But there is also a wider picture and a wider argument to be won. It is increasingly unclear to those of us within the University whether we are communicating adequately to the people we serve - serve by teaching, serve by training new generations of teachers, serve by exploration of our fields and publication of our findings - whether, I say, we are getting the message across that what we do here does matter and cannot be just taken or left. You are in a unique position to influence the public outside the University on this issue. So, as we today send you forth from what the American songwriter Tom Lehrer was pleased to call "ivy-covered professors, in ivy-covered halls" and enter or reenter the world of work, consider yourselves not just as holders of Diplomas from the University, but as the University's Diplomats. Your task will be an important one indeed. It will be to challenge sloppy thinking and ill-informed opinion about the nature of University work. It will be to back up the findings of many reports about the importance of third-level education to our future prosperity. It will be to stress, equally strongly, that civilisation has been hard won, but is very easily and quickly lost - so that the pool of independent thinkers of all kinds hosted by the University is crucial to the state's mental and spiritual well-being. It will be to confirm that within these walls is a body of individuals who care deeply about their students, about their disciplines and about serving by their educational activities the community which supports them. Your Diplomas are well-earned and well-deserved. But your diplomacy is also needed. It is with this in mind, then, that I ask you to go from here not merely as UCC Diplomats, but as Diplomats for UCC and for the work of all the Universities in our State.

Conferring Address by Professor Gearóid O Crualaoich


    Good afternoon and congratulations to each and every one of you on your many and varied achievements. This is surely a significant day in your careers and in your lives; a day when you have, on merit, been awarded a valuable University qualification. Since this day next week will be Christmas Eve, we can even think of your award as a sort of Christmas gift - a gift indeed not without a commercial implication for many of you - in line, perhaps, with the commercialisation of the religious feast. A more appropriate sense of seasonality in your award is to had however when we remember that Christmas is essentially a celebration of the birth and the intensification, within Western history and Western human consciousness, of those very values which Arts Faculties have represented since the origin of the idea of the University.

    At a time, now, and when the University and Education in general, along with so many other aspects of society, are experiencing the stress of great and rapid change, I would like to share with you some reflections on these matters -  when I am myself moving off-stage, as it were, after an involvement with UCC which began more than forty-five years ago.

    The word Universitas itself implies the integral wholeness of its members in the fullness of their humanity and the intention of the institution to cultivate the breadth and the depth of that wholeness, in both its students and its staff throughout their respective university careers. How this is achieved is, of course, both culture-specific and subject to revision and reconstitution over time. There are, nevertheless, certain enduring considerations that cannot be entirely absent if the experience of University life is to be a positive and productive experience.

    University life and participation in it is necessarily set apart in both space and in time, a privileged existence on campus and its environs that allows room for study, experiment and growth - in learning and in life. Such a campus can range from the medieval urban Sorbonne to the Oxbridge college (on which UCC was modelled) to the very commercial, city-centre London School of Economics or Yeshiva University. in downtown Manhattan. Indeed it can have a virtual nature - as in the case of the various Universities of the Air and of Distance Learning.

    Whatever its physical realisation, the University Campus has to offer opportunities for focussed calm and sustained mental concentration in Laboratory and Library and Lecture Hall. There is, here, a considerable challenge for today's Universities - given the expansion and congestion that is their lot - to continue to make provision for that essential academic stillness and calm that is a sine qua non of scholarship and that has traditionally been represented, architecturally, by the college quadrangle - of which our own UCC quadrangle here is a splendid example. Encroaching too often today on the idea of the peaceful academic quadrangle are the noise and bustle of continuous physical development, the loud machinery of cleaning and maintenance and the intrusions of various electronic devices of IT. 

    Whether with Quadrangle or without, however, every University, and School, at whatever level, must offer a Curriculum - courses of study to be pursued competitively and delivered through teaching and research so that knowledge can be transmitted, created and renewed to the benefit of the individual scholar and of society, as a whole. A balance must be achieved in the University Curriculum between the concerns of the present-day, social, economic and technological, and certain less vocational but more profound concerns. These have to do with the interpretation and representation of human experience - in literature and philosophy and history, in artistic and dramatic and musical composition and performance, and in the application of such academic and artistic insight and sophistication in the domains of political economy, the civil order and social policy.

    Besides all this, the University phenomenon is, at base, a kind of novitiate, a kind of apprenticeship aspiring to lead, through instruction and experiment, adventure and excess, and self discipline in study to rounded maturity and competence and qualification for the graduate and to cultural and social well-being in community life for society at large - whether local or global - as a benefit of such educational investment as schools and Universities require in order to do their proper work. Part of that proper work is making sure that due account is taken of the human reality that many central concerns and problems in achieving "the good life" to which we aspire, are ones for which no technical solutions can be directly engineered. Another part is nurturing the curiosity and the creativity that will bring both better technical solutions where these are appropriate and possible, and an enlightened social and cultural dispensation on the part of the professional elites and the public servants who have undergone a University formation. As such graduates, you can honour the traditions of the University - a thousand years in the making - and continue to bear witness to humane, humanist and humanitarian values in an age when economics and politics appear dominated by the pressures exerted on social relationships and on culture by the extension of market commodification to more and more of our lives and the sustained promotion of the values of a personalised consumerism at the expense of the values of shared citizenship and community.

    Recent moves in this University among others to institute radical change and reorganisation in the structures of governance and teaching are critized as introducing highly inappropriate business models and business values into academic life. The challenge for academics is to respond so as to ensure that in a changed political and economic climate where the campus and the quadrangle and the curriculum and student life are altered almost beyond recognition, humanistic University values still prevail. The greatest threat to the University is the possibility of a failure of nerve, that is, a failure of imagination, on the part of the academic community, in the face of change. Such a failure of nerve would see the academic community here acquiesce in the crudest received version of that UCC of the future which is coming to birth. Alternatively, a re-imagining of UCC, by UCC academics themselves, would unlock a huge creativity that is in danger of being paralysed through an illusion of powerlessness in the face of seemingly impossible demands. Such unlocking of creativity can push back the more harmful sides of the plans and proposals that originate from sources some of whom know little enough about education or about the University - and that are, in some cases, unsympathetic, if not inimical, to it.

    I would dearly wish to see such creativity flowering here in UCC in a way that would link the imaginative energies of staff and students in a renewal of the authentic University mission. In such a task and in the creativity of its undertaking, both tradition and modernity can be equally served and the true educational spirit of the University can find re-vitalisation. The liminal condition of appearing to be poised on the brink of a seemingly huge break with tradition on the one hand, and a radical re-organisation of reality on the other, has been to the forefront of Western human consciousness during the last five hundred years.  In the light of this, the controversy about change in the University sector today cannot be seen as posing entirely novel questions. Especially for Arts Faculties there can be the confidence that with imagination and creative effort the circumstances of our age can be adequately interpreted so as to allow us to reconceptualise and re-represent the humanist values that our academic disciplines manifest.

    In again congratulating today's graduates on their academic achievements I end by referring my academic colleagues who remain at the helm today after the graduates and myself have moved on, to a question posed for us all by Professor Arpad Szakolczai in his inaugural lecture to this faculty some years ago:
"How did it happen in the past that in moments that seemed thoroughly hopeless, dominated by irreversible and hostile forces, of mechanisation, bureaucratisation, formalisation, legislation and fiscalisation  .... a 'spark' of the 'spirit' suddenly 'caught fire'"?

If the spirit of UCC needs re-kindling at this time then it is to the Faculty of Arts, I believe, that the privilege can fall of providing the 'spark'

        Thank you all and good luck.         

« Back to 2004 Press Releases


University College Cork

Coláiste na hOllscoile Corcaigh

College Road, Cork T12 K8AF