University town getting royal test

Scotland: Can Prince William be just another student at St. Andrews?

September 06, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - In this medieval town overlooking the North Sea, residents have watched Bill Clinton tee off on the Old Course, Clint Eastwood savor a drink in a bar and Sean Connery wander down the cobble-stoned streets.

A different kind of celebrity will arrive later this month. The question is whether residents will react when the most famous college freshman in the kingdom, Prince William, second in line to the British throne, shows up for orientation week at the University of St. Andrews.

"When he first comes here, there will be hustle and bustle," says Sheena Willougby, who runs the Dunvegan Hotel, catering to the likes of golf champion Tiger Woods and former astronaut Neil Armstrong. "I think that will die down very quickly. People are used to seeing celebrities here. At the end of the day, they put their trousers on like everyone else. What is the fuss about?"

The fuss is about a teen prince trying to fit in as a common student. It's about seeing how the town and university react to a handsome young man who is the son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana and second in line to succeed Queen Elizabeth II. The spotlight will be shining not on the part of town renowned as golf's ancestral home, but on Britain's third-oldest university, founded in 1410. (Oxford, the oldest, had students by 1096; Cambridge, the second-oldest, had its first scholars in 1206.)

The event begins with orientation Sept. 18, the start of "freshers" week, as Prince William and the university's 6,000 other students begin to arrive and settle in for the new academic year. He's here for four years to study art history.

"For the school, it should be good," says Crystal Ho, a recent graduate. "But for the students, it could be destructive. It's the press around Prince William that could make it destructive."

This is not like an American president's kid going off to college. William, 19, is a public figure in his own right. His life is part of a national family album, from his birth at St. Mary's Hospital in London to his first day as a 3-year-old at Mrs. Mynor's Nursery School to his stint at Eton, the elite secondary school now attended by his younger brother, Prince Harry.

In some ways, he's like a blank sheet that can be filled in to suit the needs of others - a pop idol to teen girls, a playboy prince to tabloid journalists, a great hope to monarchists concerned about a troubled institution.

Like thousands of other British teens, he spent a gap year between high school and college on a great adventure: survival exercises in a Belize jungle followed by volunteer work in southern Chile.

In truth, except for carefully managed interviews, little is known about William.

At St. Andrews, none of William's public life and eventual responsibilities are supposed to make a difference.

"Everyone who has applied here and received a place here has made the grade," says Stephen Magee, admissions director. "Everybody is entitled to the best we can give them, whoever she or he may be."

The university is trying to deal with the publicity, security and public interest surrounding the prince's impending arrival. There has already been one security hoax, when someone mailed a mysterious brown powder accompanied by a piece of paper with the words: "Anthrax-Warning."

But mostly, the university has stuck to its principles, declining to talk specifically about William although managing to at least meet the press halfway by explaining the school's mission - to provide a broadly based education.

"The university is doing very well considering the kind of pressure it is under, which is unique for any university ever," says Dana Green, 20, student association president, who comes from Bow, N.H.

As the locals are fond of saying, nobody actually passes through St. Andrews. You have to want to be here - about a one-hour drive northeast of Edinburgh, literally at the end of one main road.

It says a lot about William that after attending Eton, within sight of Windsor Castle, he chose to come to St. Andrews rather than, say, follow the lead of his father, who attended Cambridge and became the first heir to the throne to gain a university degree. It's very doubtful that William will repeat his father's college entrance: Charles showed up driven in a red mini-car that became stuck in traffic.

The town of 16,000 is guarded at one end by the ruins of a castle and cathedral that once marked Scotland's ecclesiastical home and is dominated by three broad main medieval streets lined with three-story high gray stone buildings that seem grayer in late-afternoon rain.

The most prized real estate of all is the Old Course, the home of golf, a holy grail for duffers worldwide.

The town has one movie theater, 22 pubs and no fast-food outlets. Town and university are integrated, one blending into another, like the architecture that moves from medieval to Victorian.

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