Category Archives: General

Why we all need to get out and vote

[Ready to Vote] Next week, on October 19, Canadians head to the polls to vote in the 42nd federal election.

At present, I am travelling in Europe – I presented two academic papers and met with alumni and partner institutions in Paris, and I’m heading to Germany, with stops in Stuttgart, Tübingen and Munich, again to meet with representatives from partner universities.

Being away from Canada just ahead of the election (I return home October 16) is a blessing, in a way – it gives me the opportunity to reflect on what it is to be Canadian and what makes Canada special. This country has so many strengths – a diverse population, democratic and individual freedoms, strong health-care and education systems, and a resilient economy, to name a few.

Election season, I think, is not only a great time to reflect – on individual and collective values – it’s also an excellent time to ask questions. What is important to me? What will make our country a better place? What and who will propel Canada into the future? These are all things I’m thinking about.

Of course, always top of mind for me is education, and how government can support our students and the work we do here at Queen’s. But, what we do here on campus has a broader sphere of influence – the learning, the teaching, the research – this all extends into our communities, our cities and provinces/territories, the country as a whole, and the wider world.

This is why I encourage you, all our voting-eligible students, to get out and vote on October 19. I encourage you to familiarize yourselves with the candidates and party platforms. Make your voice heard. Contribute to the ongoing discussions and debates that form our country.

I understand that when you’re young, you may not see the importance of your one vote. You also may not connect with some of the issues that swirl around in the lead-up to the election.

But, as your life progresses, you’ll see more and more how your voice, your one vote, is an essential piece of the democratic puzzle. We need to let our leaders know what’s important to us. And what’s important to us may shift over time. While you may not feel that some of the issues impact you at this particular point in your life, down the road you may find yourself with fresh concerns – when you’re starting your first full-time job, when you’re buying a house or starting a family, for example. Your one vote now will help shape the Canada of the future.

On October 19, I’ll be heading to my local polling station. I hope to see you en route to yours.

For more information, visit the special section on Elections Canada’s website for students and first-time voters.

A sad 25th anniversary, and a time to reflect

ribbon 64

The white ribbon campaign has become one of the largest men’s anti-violence campaigns in the world.

Last week my wife and I attended a performance of the School of Music wind ensemble at the Isabel. It was a great performance of several recent and contemporary compositions. The one that stuck with me was ‘Polytechnique’, a moving piece by young Quebec composer Jonathan Dagenais that concluded with 14 chimes in memory of the women killed by a crazed and hateful gunman on 6 December 1989 at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. (Click here to watch a performance of ‘Polytechnique’ by another ensemble).

This Saturday will mark the 25th anniversary of that scar on our national psyche, and it has particular resonance given recent discussions on campus and in the media concerning sexual assault.  Among those who attend the memorials (here at Queen’s it is scheduled for Friday Dec 5) on campus, a great many will not even have been born in 1989. As with Remembrance Day, the commemoration of this date has passed to a new generation.

As I listened in the darkened hall to ‘Polytechnique’, played so beautifully by our students, I cast my mind back 25 years to my much younger self and the world of the time. On December 6 1989 I was 31 years and one day old (having celebrated my birthday the day before), a relatively new assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s history department. On that day, I was travelling home from Winnipeg, where I had taken my 8-month old daughter Sarah, at that point our only child, to visit with her grandparents. I was in the full flush of new fatherhood and proudly paraded Sarah to a series of old friends’ houses.

We arrived back to our house in the north end of Halifax and I knew before I stepped in the door that something was wrong. Sarah’s mother had an ashen look on her face and told me that news reports were coming in of a madman having killed a number of female students in Montreal. Over the next hours and days I felt for the victims and their parents and loved ones with a particular empathy that perhaps one can only feel as the parent of a daughter.

While few things compare with the magnitude of that tragedy – and I wouldn’t venture to compare them – I can’t help but recall that the fall of 1989 was a challenging one for Queen’s. That’s when a campaign on campus on the theme of ‘no means no’ was ridiculed by a number of students in the men’s residences (gender integration of the residences would be one consequence of these events, as historian Duncan McDowell points out in his forthcoming history of the university between 1961 and 2004). I won’t retell the events here other than to say that things got very nasty, very quickly and in a very un-Queen’s-like way. Then-Principal David Smith and his administration struggled to deal with a problem of which it is clear they were unaware. Many alumni—me among them—wrote letters of concern or even outrage to the Alumni Review. Then, when the Montreal Massacre occurred, what had been largely a campus incident at Queen’s alerted a lot of people to the fact that problems of misogyny, violence against women, and a highly sexist culture permeated the country.

A quarter century and a generation later—my daughter is now nearly 26 and has two brothers in their earlier 20s— it would be foolish to claim that we have not made progress. There is a much higher level of awareness of and, I think, much lower tolerance for, the attitudes that provoked the heated debate on our campus and ultimately led to the horror at Ecole Polytechnique. Departments of Women’s and Gender Studies such as ours (which was then in its infancy) are now well established at many institutions. We have much greater gender equity across many disciplines, including Engineering, the discipline that the victims in Montreal were studying (their very right to do so contested by their killer). We have in many ways moved on to other issues.

But we’re still not where we need to be. The allegations swirling around a recently dismissed radio celebrity have brought this to mind, and so, frankly, have the recent media reports on sexual assaults on our campus and others. It’s clear from talking to a number of our faculty and students in recent weeks that many women students feel unsafe. If ‘no means no’ was Principal Smith’s wake-up call, then I guess I’ve now had mine.

As I noted in the Queen’s Journal last week, I don’t believe that having a sexual assault policy is a magic bullet to fix attitudes and behavior—we need a broader strategy and an approach that brings young men into the solution, just as many of them were part of the positive discussions in the years after 1989. But I do believe that a policy will help, and that it will, most importantly, provide the basis for clearer and unambiguous support by members of our community to survivors of sexual assault.

I hope that, should I still be living in a further 25 years, my eventual successor will be able to look back on the next quarter century as a time of greater progress and of the eradication of sexual assault and the attitudes behind it.

Queen’s further revises noise application

The following letter was originally published as a Letter to the Editor in the Kingston Whig-Standard on July 9, 2014.

I am writing to clarify some inaccurate information circulating in our community regarding the application Queen’s University has submitted to the City of Kingston for a temporary noise bylaw exemption for two West Campus sports fields and for Richardson Stadium.

Queen’s withdrew a prior application earlier this year after noise-related concerns were expressed by area residents during broad public consultations. We listened to those concerns and in response, we have extensively revised and scaled back our application.

Specifically, we are requesting a limited, temporary exemption to the noise control bylaw, between 9 am and 9 pm, Monday to Sunday, until December 31, 2015. Put simply, we are seeking the ability to: blow game whistles; make brief, intermittent PA announcements; sing or play the national anthem; and (for Richardson Stadium only) play music during timeouts and other breaks in play.

Last week, based on additional comments heard at a public meeting hosted by the university, we further revised our application to quantify the maximum number of games that would be held at each field in a calendar year. This includes at most 15 games at Richardson Stadium, and up to 93 games at the north fields (that number being the highest estimate should all Queen’s teams host the maximum possible number of playoff games).

The university has already undertaken several mitigation strategies to reduce noise from athletic and recreational activities on the fields; more work will take place based on recommendations from a noise study, currently underway. We have heard feedback that suggests these mitigation strategies are working.

We believe this revised application achieves a reasonable balance between the concerns of area residents and the continued operation of these sports fields. If the university is not granted this limited exemption, our football and varsity soccer programs will be in jeopardy.

Daniel Woolf
Principal and Vice-Chancellor
Queen’s University

Risk, Safety and Student initiative: a comment on the recent AMS op-ed

I read with interest the comments of the outgoing AMS Executive in the final print issue of this year’s edition of the Queen’s Journal, in particular those suggesting that the university has become overly ‘risk-conscious’ in recent years. The editorial states that this is leading to a dampening of the freedom of initiative and action, as well as the independence of student government, that has been enjoyed by Queen’s students for nearly a century.

It is certainly true that students here (I was one myself many moons ago) enjoy a much higher degree of autonomy in the non-academic sphere than those at other universities. That’s always been a distinguishing feature of Queen’s. We were one of the first universities to appoint a student representative to the Board of Trustees (the Rector), and students have exercised judicial authority—a delegated authority from Senate—over their peers via the ‘NAD’ (non-academic discipline) system for decades.

All activity carries risk. Risk mitigation helps manage it, taking safety and health in account.

All activity carries risk. Risk mitigation helps manage it, taking health and safety into account. (photo: University Communications)

In principle, and just to be unambiguously clear, I support this system. It has worked well for a very long time. It is not perfect, of course, any more than our administrative systems are perfect. But it is a distinctive part of the Queen’s ‘special sauce’. Last year I reconfirmed the university’s commitment to maintaining the NAD system in an MOU with then-AMS president Doug Johnson. There have been no changes to that commitment, either from me or from any of my colleagues.

I am grateful for the strong support of the AMS and other student government groups on such issues as mental health, and last year’s problem (thankfully much reduced this year) with blue light tampering, as well as many other matters in which university administrators, myself included, work collaboratively with student leaders. The tensions that have arisen in the past few years have primarily involved health and safety issues.

Jurisdictionally, the health and safety environment of students lies squarely in the domain of the Board of Trustees and, to the degree that it has authority over ‘student welfare’, the Senate. The university administration exercises management of the campus environment on behalf of both bodies. The Board in particular has a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that a safe and healthy environment is maintained (for faculty and staff as well as students), and we in administration report to it regularly.

Students who have arrived at Queen’s since 2011 may not be aware that in the fall of 2010, two students died from falls incurred while under the influence of alcohol – one at the end of Orientation Week, another just before the Christmas break. It was a very difficult time for all of us.

What those tragedies highlighted is that greater vigilance on such issues as alcohol usage (especially during Orientation Week, with many under-aged students away from home for the first time) was a prudent move. Student Affairs has worked with student leadership over the past three years to find a satisfactory balance between students’ freedom to organize their own activities and the need to preserve a safe environment.

These are not black and white issues. All activity carries risk, whether one is hang-gliding or simply walking across a busy street. The purpose of a risk mitigation strategy is not the elimination of risk but its management, so that all due care for safety and health is taken.

In negotiating boundaries there will inevitably be areas of disagreement where discussion is required. Some of those areas are, to my mind, less ambiguous. Hazing is one of them, whether it involves risks to safety or the compulsion of unwilling students to participate in acts that they may regard as demeaning. In the fall, administration received reports of significant hazing activities during and after Orientation Week. The Provost, with my agreement, authorized Student Affairs to look into these issues further. The AMS viewed this as an intrusion on NAD. I respectfully disagreed, since at no time were these enquiries intended to lead to disciplinary action—if they had, we would have referred the cases to NAD for pursuit, with administration acting as the complainant.

This is not, as the AMS editorial suggested, a matter of liability and reputational risk management only (though those of course are of concern to the Board, Senate and administration—as they should also be to students and alumni). They are matters of preserving a safe and inclusive environment for all.  The campus is a small city unto itself, and will never be entirely risk-free, any more than post-university life is risk-free. I take a risk every time I get in my car. But I take a much more serious risk if I do so in a car without functioning headlights, or poor brakes. Our student athletes engage in moderately risky activities every time they participate in a sport, and we, and they, take appropriate precautions to manage this. The AMS engages in its own forms of risk mitigation by, for instance, having student constables, supporting Walk-Home, and exercising appropriate controls over the events it organizes and the facilities, including pubs, that it runs.

We will never eliminate risk entirely, but we must continuously monitor the activities that occur to ensure that risk is both understood and mitigated, and that unnecessary, high risk activities are reduced or eliminated.  The bottom line for me is simple: I want our students to thrive, and to exercise the spirit of initiative; but I also want them to be safe and secure.  Their families entrust them to our care and while we are not in loco parentis in a way that universities were in previous generations, we do have a moral as well as legal responsibility to take all reasonable actions toward this.

I am committed, as are my administrative colleagues, to continue working through these issues with the incoming AMS executive, and with committees such as the Senate Orientation Activities Review Board. I look forward to those discussions over the coming year.



Collaborating with the City

Daniel Woolf and Mayor Gerretsen

Mayor Gerretsen and Daniel Woolf

As I’ve said many times, the full name of our university is Queen’s University at Kingston, and the school and the city are quite inextricably joined. A taxi driver expressed to me just last week how much he looks forward to the return of the majority of students in the fall. We all know what benefits the university enjoys by its situation in a lovely, lakeside community relatively close to several larger cities; and the city in turn profits from the economic activity and voluntarism of the university’s students, staff and faculty.

Of course, agendas can diverge, and differences can arise on particular issues. One of my priorities as Principal has been to build better bridges with our colleagues at City Hall, both at the political level (Mayor and Councillors) and administrative level (the CAO and commissioners and their staff). Thanks to a great deal of hard work in our Provost’s office in particular, and engagement by senior administrators with city officials on a wide variety of files, relations are currently very productive and genial. There are several different working groups devoted to different aspects of the town-gown relationship, and over here on the west side of Barrie Street we pay close attention to what is happening down at City Hall.

From left to right: Councillor Jim Neill, Ann Tierney, Dean of Student Affairs, Mayor Gerretsen and Councillor Liz Schell

From left to right: Councillor Jim Neill, Ann Tierney, Dean of Student Affairs, Mayor Gerretsen and Councillor Liz Schell

Last year we invited the then newly elected or re-elected councillors and Mayor to a reception at Benidickson House. The meeting went so well that we decided to repeat it this year, and we met in the same venue last week. I was accompanied by the Provost and Vice-Principals, and by a number of Associate Vice-Principals including new Dean of Student Affairs Tierney and AVP Facilities Browne. The city sent all but 3 Counsellors, the Mayor and the CAO. Over the course of two hours we had a lively discussion on a wide range of issues, including Queen’s plans for growth, and how we might accommodate that growth without putting further pressure on Kingston’s already over-subscribed rental stock, and how Queen’s can continue to assist Kingston’s social improvement and economic expansion. The meeting covered a lot of territory and gave us all a big ‘to do’ list for the next year. More important than any individual subject, however, was the mutual commitment at the table to keep each other informed about our plans, and always think about how actions we might wish to take affect the other party. It was a terrific way to start the year, and I am looking forward to continuing our dialogue with Mayor Gerretsen and his colleagues downtown.