Provost Andy Orchard's Installation Address

Honourable Chancellors, Presidents, Principals, Bishops, Provosts, Deans, doctores honorandi, Bursars, Librarians, Registrars, colleagues, staff, students, alumni, parents, family, friends, and family-friends, uncles, aunts, cousins, kids, and, since there’s also only one of her, my mum: I can only say taxonomy can be taxing (which is why I’m not a scientist). I apologise if I’ve left any single sentient being out: perhaps I should quit while I’m ahead. But it really is an honour and a pleasure and a privilege, and it really is both humbling and elating in equal parts to be standing here today. Let me begin by simply saying to some “welcome,” and to others “welcome back,” to the University of Trinity College in the University of Toronto.

As its extraordinary title perhaps implies,Trinity is an extraordinary institution, and I stand here acutely conscious of the many extraordinary individuals past and present, present and absent, who have come together over more than 150 years to make it so. While Trinity is rightly proud of its independence, still retaining as it does the power to award its own degrees, including some well-deserved Honorary Degrees today (don’t believe everything you read  in the papers!), but also justifiably pleased to be associated so closely with the mighty and mighty important University of Toronto. I am particularly pleased to see here so many representatives of the upper echelons of the UofT, including the heads of other federated institutions, notably St Michael’s and Victoria Colleges, that like Trinity are in some sense in the UofT but not of it, as well as the heads of other educational foundations from Toronto and Ontario and all across Canada. Here you must excuse my inbred medievalist (if that’s not tautologous) instincts in saying that I am particularly glad to salute tonight the Praeses (a title so much more chic than Provost) of the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, several Directors and representatives of the Toronto Centre for Medieval Studies, and the indefatigable Editor of the Toronto Dictionary of Old English, who together contrive to make Toronto truly the centre of the medieval world. It’s why I came here. These smaller entities (and I’m not just talking about Toni Healey at the DOE) that punch well above their weight in international terms seem to me a model for us all, and I am truly honoured to be associated with Trinity, which in its pursuit of and (I trust) continuing commitment to the highest standards of academic excellence can be said to support an intellectual endeavour that vastly overshadows its fiscal footprint.

As a relative newcomer, I have already been asked far too many times: “What do Provosts do?” Well, initially it seems to me that if they’re smart, Provosts do pretty much what they’re told. But then I remember that I have a PhD from Cambridge, so thinking that a better answer was warranted today I mustered all my research-training from that fenland polytechnic and, having failed, I Googled it. As often with the Internet, some alarming stuff comes up (I’m just warning anyone who monitors these things), but what struck me most was the strong implication that the business of a Provost is far less about doing than about being. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that quirky little modern adjunct to the mighty Toronto Dictionary of Old English, provost has been a noun in English for over a thousand years, but apparently a verb for only three. That may be about right. As a noun, it is an Anglo-Saxon adaptation of the Latin term praepositus or propositus, meaning someone that has been set above, or set over, or perhaps just set up. Of all the Old English examples (I found sixty-eight, mostly rogues or fools or charlatans), the most intriguing is in that weird eleventh-century cheat-sheet for monks who wanted to circumvent their vows of silence by using sneaky hand-signs, the so-called Monasteriales indicia. There, in honourable third place after abbots and deans (the sign for which is incidentally thus), the text says:

Gyf mon wille wæt be þam profoste tæcan wille, þonne rær þu þinne scytefinger
ofer þin heofod, forþi þæt is his tacen.
If you want to say something about the Provost, then raise your index-finger
above your head, because that is his sign.

Feel free, but of course these days I should add that this Provost reserves the right to respond digitally, and maybe even with a finger or two.

So much for the noun. There was, however, once a verb provost, with a distinctly limited shelf-life: the OED notes glumly that it was “ Apparently a short-lived word used c 1837”  (presumably just as the plans for UofT and Trinity were being laid), it is defined as “To hand over to the provost-marshal to be dealt with summarily and (formerly) to receive corporal punishment;” the illustrative quotation from 1837 is no more cheering: “Men found to be incorrigible, have first been provosted, then marched forth disgracefully by beat of drum from their regiments.” Oh dear. Actually, and with my research-hat on I have news for the OED: it’s not quite dead as a verb; the word provosted also appears (please note the cutting-edge research) in the online Urban Dictionary in an entry for 2005, where the term provosted  is defined as “getting kneed in the crotch.” Oh dear again. On these terms, then, and given the chequered history, I am happy therefore to undertake to *be* Provost; and we’ll see what I *do*; I look forward to working with you all.

I’ve already said to them too often how much I will always identify with the incoming and now matriculated class: we will certainly learn things together, and I look forward to meeting you all. Like you, I’m here because of two things: where I came from, and who I am. As I stand here in this fine gown, surrounded by other gowns that are perhaps finer, or fairer, or just more funky, I am reminded of my dad, who was warm and wise and witty, in ways to which I still aspire, and who I do wish was here today. Thirteen years he’s been gone, but he is always with me still. And he was there then, seventeen years ago, at the only degree-ceremony of my own I ever actually attended. I remember walking into the Senate House in Cambridge to pick up my PhD, and the first thing I saw, at a solemn and somewhat pompous ceremony, was my dad laughing in that wonderful and tearful and infectious way he had, as he gazed on the order of ceremony. I was unimpressed. When I walked out, I told him “thanks for nothing: you just ruined my big day,” but he pointed to the unnecessarily detailed train-spotters’ guide to gowns they’d printed in the programme in unnecessarily heraldic detail. The gown and hood in question were for some higher medical degree, and took four full lines to describe the thing in all its splendour. Like you, perhaps, heraldic language leaves me numb: alas, I cannot tell my “fools gules with bend sinister” from my “peasant argent rampant,” but my dad, as a good sailor who also loved flags, could. But it still wasn’t funny, and I said as much, with all the hot indignant tear-welling of affronted youth. And he said “No, look at the next one,” which was for the equivalent higher veterinary degree. The medics got four lines, the vets got one; but all it said was “the same, but with more fur.” Even academics can be funny, apparently. It was my dad that taught me how to read properly, mainly by not speaking much; it was my mum who taught me how to listen, mainly by not shutting up. I owe them both everything, and as I look at my own kids, I realize how I much I owe to them all.

Today is a day for advice freely given and occasionally taken. Today is a day for being hopeful and helpful, and ultimately realistic about what one can achieve. I remember precisely the moment I felt old, and therefore “on the other side:” I was talking to a bright-eyed student not unlike myself several decades earlier, and, exasperated by her continual rejection of any of the options I was offering, I spat out in ways that maybe only parents and teachers have to hear more than once: “So what (the hell) *do* you want?” And with that charming and disarming honesty I knew at that moment that I’d lost myself, she said: “I don’t know, I guess I want everything.” I still hate myself for saying “OK, but where would you put it?” The silence between us spoke volumes.

I’ll just give you some better examples of good advice, just to be getting on with. Get on YouTube, and watch everything they have that the physicist Richard Feynman ever said and did, and if you’re not moved when he talks about “the inconceivable nature of nature,” or when he speaks about the poetry of flowers, then you have no soul, and should go see the Chaplain immediately. Next, imagine being Alexander the Great, and ponder why your favourite line of Homer would be “always to excel, and to be beyond the rest;” and then imagine poor old Aristotle, who had to teach the over-achieving brat. Wisely, Plato’s best student allegedly said to his own worst: “be what you wish to seem.” Genius. In other words, if you want to be thought the greatest military commander and conqueror of all time, just get on with it, shorty: as the Nike ads say, “just do it.” Which Alexander did, and the rest is history. Whether Alexander or Aristotle would have subscribed to the Delphic injunction simply to “know yourself” is unknown, but each certainly succeeded, in their own way. But of course ahead of Homer and Aristotle and the oracle at Delphi I put my dad. All he ever told us growing up was “go steady,” and that’s all I’m telling you: find out who you are, and be that person. As with Provosts, sometimes it’s more important to be than to do.

Be it here. Trinity College is a special place, if in the greater scheme of things a small one. Universities are, as the name implies, simply everything, and just there. But colleges can breathe and live and grow in ways in which universities can’t, or not so easily. Colleges are where folk choose to be together, and are chosen to share. Colleges are places where the young can feel older and the old can feel younger, but always together, because colleges are places where folk can find each other and themselves, and develop friendships and themselves. Enjoy your university, cherish your college. Go steady. And as you go, remember every now and then the Provost, who seems to do nothing, but just is: as you go on to be yourselves, this Provost at least will be proud if he can help somehow, and if we can walk part of that way together.