Category Archives: General

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.

A Midsummer Blog

Convocations are long over, we’ve bid ‘au revoir’ to our newest graduates as they head out into the world, and we are now in the middle of summer months, thus far with pretty good weather in the Kingston area.

I took some vacation in early July and plan to take a bit more in early August, after which the fall schedule of meetings begins to ramp up quickly. The highlight of September for me is welcoming our new students, first year undergraduates as well as new graduate and professional students, to Queen’s.

In the absence of most students at this time of year, the university continues to hum along. Over the past few months, I have been meeting with many alumni and friends of Queen’s, talking about the spirit and initiative of our faculty, staff and students as they push the limits of what can be achieved and develop ideas that make a difference in the world.

One issue that is occupying many on campus this summer is labour negotiations. Collective bargaining is currently underway between the university and several employee groups, as happens every few years as part of the labour relations cycle at any large organization.

Not unexpectedly, this process generates lots of discussion and questions. The university’s goal is to secure negotiated agreements that recognize the valuable contributions of faculty and staff while addressing the financial issues facing the university and ensuring the long-term sustainability of our pension plan. These challenges are not unique to Queen’s – many other universities across the province, and indeed the country, are dealing with underfunded plans and operating budgets that are in deficit. We are very much focused on reaching settlements with all employee groups, but it would be irresponsible not to be involved in contingency planning, which is another normal piece of the collective bargaining process. We all very much hope that we won’t need to implement our plans. There are inevitably differences of opinion in these circumstances, but everyone agrees and understands that compromise must be found.

For students, faculty, staff and others wishing regular updates and answers to frequently asked questions, please consult

I would also draw your attention to the financial updates from our Provost Bob Silverman and V-P (Finance and Administration) Caroline Davis at

I want to welcome our new Associate V-P and Dean of Student Affairs, Ann Tierney to Queen’s as she begins her appointment, and our incoming Provost, Alan Harrison, who begins August 1. And finally, I thank outgoing Provost Bob Silverman for his tremendous leadership over the past 15 months and wish him well in his future activities.

So What Exactly is “Board Week” all about?

Four times a year a good deal of activity occurs in my office and in the offices of the Provost and the Vice-Principals, which we call “Board Week.”

If you are a student, staff or faculty member you are probably well aware that Queen’s has a Board of Trustees, and that it is one of three governing bodies at the university (the other two are the Senate and University Council). But you may have no real idea what it does or what goes on at a meeting.

Queens Board of Trustees 2010-2011

Queens Board of Trustees 2010-2011

As I write this, I am embarking on my 7th Board weekend (it is a full two days of meetings, starting with the first Committee meeting on Thursday nights and wrapping up on Saturdays about lunch time), and I thought it might be useful to try to de-mystify the process.

Board-related activity is constant, but it significantly ramps up a week or so before its quarterly meetings (March, May, September/October and December).

Boards vary in size and composition across Canada. In Alberta, where I used to work, the government had a very direct role in university governance, and it not only named most Boards of Governors (as they are called out there) to the universities, but also the respective Board Chairs. In Ontario, we have much more institutional autonomy, partly due to the much greater number of PSE institutions than in most other provinces, and partly due to their differing histories and origins.

Our Board is currently on the large side, at 44 members including the Principal (who, under our 1841 charter and its revisions, is the only person at Queen’s who is both on Board and Senate). It is a pretty widely held view that this is too big, and we currently have a Charter amendment request before Parliament to reduce the Board to about 25. Many other University Boards are smaller still.

The Principal is an ex-officio member, as is the Chancellor (David Dodge) and the Rector (Nick Day.)

The Chair of the Board is alumnus Bill Young (B.Sc.(Hons.) (Chem Eng.)’77), who is Managing Partner of Monitor Clipper Equity Partners in Cambridge, MA.

Biographies of all Board members can be found at

What does the Board do?

As I mentioned above, the Board meets four times a year in person, and there will often be two or three phone call meetings a year, typically for one or two specific items — for instance approving my annual goals and reviewing my performance in the previous year. The Board weekends are set well in advance (the logistics of getting over 40 people into and out of Kingston four times a year are not insignificant). It is the responsibility of the University Secretariat — the same body that organizes Senate and Council meetings — to keep the machinery running smoothly, the records and minutes kept, and the documents circulating in a timely fashion (all electronically, by the way — the Board has been largely paperless for months.)

A significant part of the Board’s role is fiduciary — they are volunteers, typically with a connection to Queen’s (often, but not always, alumni) and include faculty, staff and student representation (in the case of students there is an undergraduate and a graduate trustee, each serving two year terms; the Rector, like the Principal and the Chancellor, is an ex-officio member).

By fiduciary I mean it is the responsibility of Trustees to act for the good of the institution to ensure that it is being properly managed, that it is in compliance with external regulations, and that things are running generally smoothly. The Board does not get involved in the day-to-day operations of the University, which is the role of the senior administration and the deans. It does not involve itself in academic matters which are the jurisdiction of Senate (though it does consider academically-related matters that have budget implications — for instance, the construction of a new academic building). It approves tuition increases. It appoints the Principal (on the recommendation of a joint Senate-Board committee), the Provost and Vice-Principals (on a recommendation from the Principal, following the counsel of an Advisory Selection Committee). I work closely with the Board Chair on developing the agenda for particular meetings, and the Provost and Vice-Principals similarly are in touch with the chairs of the various committees (see below).

All trustees are required to declare any conflict of interest, but beyond that, are expected to act with the interests of the university as a whole in mind; in short, though they come from particular sectors (some elected by graduates, some by constituency groups such as students, faculty and staff, some recruited by the Board), they are not there to advocate for those groups per se, but rather to ensure that those groups have a voice in the financial and fiduciary side of the governance of the university. Historically, student trustees (including the Rector) have exercised a powerful influence in Board discussions, as have faculty and staff trustees.

Committee meetings are held Thursday evenings and all day Fridays. The open session of Board — typically held on the Friday evening — will include various observers such as the AMS and SGPS presidents, representatives of the various employee groups, and several members of the administration. They are “open” in the sense that others may apply to the Secretary in advance to have guest or visitor status, not in the sense that one may just “show up”.  Space is usually quite tight in the meeting room, and showing up without an advance request does not guarantee admission.

Every Board meeting begins with a ‘Consent Agenda’, which includes relatively routine matters that can be brought on to the main agenda if a trustee requests, but are otherwise deemed approved or received for information; this permits more discussion time for issues of greater complexity. A typical meeting, often but not always including an in-camera (private) session, will run about 3 hours. Saturday morning is typically devoted to longer-range issues and strategic updates — for instance, a presentation by a Vice-Principal or Associate V-P on a particular issue.

A great deal of work is done before the Board meeting proper, in the standing committees. Each committee is composed of several trustees, including student, faculty or staff trustees; members are often picked for their particular expertise (for instance, there are accountants on the Audit Committee).

Here’s a quick overview of the Board standing committees and what they do.

Audit Committee:
Responsible for ensuring that the university is adhering to best practices and to external regulations on everything from health and safety to accounting principles; it oversees routine internal audits of individual units that occur on a rotating basis; it assesses the progress of current projects, for instance, the ongoing implementation of QUASR; it appoints the external auditors and recommends approval of the annual audited financial statements; it also has oversight for enterprise-wide risk management.

Nominating Committee:
Responsible for ensuring that Board governance runs smoothly and that vacancies are filled according to the Board’s bylaws and consistent with the Charter, with due attention both to getting a broad and inclusive membership as well as providing the necessary skill sets.

Campus Planning and Development Committee (CPDC):
A little unusual in that it has members who are elected by the Senate. Like other committees, it also has members who are not Trustees, but provide a particular expertise. CPDC helps develop the campus plan, approves the selection of architects and the design of new buildings and is responsible for ensuring that the campus remains an aesthetically pleasing — and sustainable –  environment for all. It cannot approve the construction of a building or even preliminary work towards that, which is the decision of the full Board, on recommendation of the Finance Committee (see below).

Environmental Health and Safety Committee:
Somewhat like CPDC except this committee is focused on the existing built environment and looks at issues of accessibility and sustainability; it?s also similar to Audit committee with respect to regulatory compliance in areas of environmental and occupational health and safety; it receives reports from the administration on related issues — for instance, pandemic planning.

Pension Committee:
Consists of representatives from the Board, senior administration and the employee groups, it ensures that the funds in the pension plan are being managed appropriately and that they are being paid out in accordance with the Plan and with collective agreements. The committee also develops and reviews the investment policies and practices for the pension fund.

Investment Committee:
Develops and reviews the investment policies and practices for the Queen’s Pooled Investment Fund and Pooled Endowment Fund; reviews the performance of particular funds and fund managers against return.

Finance Committee:
Reviews the budget and financial position of the university, and approves any new expenditure on capital or any new contract above a particular threshold. Members of the committee will typically have variable expertise in areas like investments, risk management, accounting, asset management, capital projects, and real estate. Again, there is always either a faculty or a staff or a student trustee on this committee.

Advancement Committee:
Acts as a reference group for the V-P (Advancement) and the Principal on major fund-raising initiatives and reviews the progress of Advancement (including Alumni Relations) on its annual goals. It provides strategic advice not only on fund-raising but also on broader ‘advancement’ issues, for instance the current brand exercise that is taking place, and considers areas of reputational risk for the university.

Human Resources Committee: Reviews the performance of the Principal annually and, in conjunction with the Principal, that of the Provost and Vice-Principals. Provides a mandate for the administration in negotiations with employee groups around collective agreements.
I hope this sheds some light on an important aspect of university governance. I?ll be tweeting from the various meetings over the next few days and there will be a story on the Queen?s News Centre next week on highlights from the open session. For Board agendas, minutes, meeting dates and more information, visit

Things that keep me awake at night

Yesterday in the twice yearly meeting of University Council’s executive committee a member asked me ‘Principal, what are the things that keep you awake at night–is it mainly finances?’

Good question. Many nights our three cats, Hobbes, Basia and Luis (it’s a long story) wake us up.  Or I will ponder how things are going for my spouse and 3 kids and my parents. Sometimes it’s a particular problem in my research activities that is paying me nocturnal visits (usually followed by a leap to the laptop to get an idea down before it vanishes).

And, yes, a good deal of the time I do lie awake fretting about how things are going at the university. In my answer to the committee member I identified four areas that contribute to sleeplessness. (These aren’t the only ones, but they are certainly the most frequent).
Here they are, but in no particular order of priority.

1. Finances. No question, we are at a difficult juncture, and have been for a couple of years. We have major challenges in the budget with a deficit to reduce, and I know from my visits to departments and faculties just how much professors and staff are being challenged to deliver a highest quality education to our students, undergraduate, graduate and professional. Apart from the constrained operating budget, like just about every university in Ontario we have some other problems that need sorting out, among which the biggest is a serious deficiency in the pension fund. Progress is being made on both these issues, but we have a way to go before we get out of this tunnel.

However, the financial issues are cyclical, recurrent, and ultimately soluble. We absolutely are going to come out the other side, and almost certainly stronger and more resilient–even if likely a bit different in some respects. As I’ve said many times, a look through our history shows that we (again, like just about every university) have been in tight fiscal circumstances before (the 1860s; the 1930s; and even the mid 1970s, when I was a student here).  So, important as the financial issues are, there are other things that keep me awake and have potentially longer lasting impact. Here I will list them without much expansion, but develop each of them further in subsequent blog posts.

2. The first of these is whether we are continuing to evolve the university with respect for our traditions of quality and our values but without a slavish devotion to past practices. Tradition (as I noted in my installation address a year ago next week) is about change, development, growth and cumulative evolution. It is not about always preserving everything. The fact is the world and the requirements of our students and society are changing. Some of the pedagogy we have used for a century remains useful and relevant but a lot needs to be either abandoned or revised. Is the curriculum diverse and flexible enough to answer the needs of a student body that is very different from that of 30 years ago? The content itself individual professors are properly in charge of and have to weigh up, but as an institution and as units within it we have to ask: are we staying at the front end of change rather than the rear?And are we, as another former fellow Edmontonian, Wayne Gretzky, once said, ‘skating to where the puck is going, not where it is’. Of the two ‘future histories’ that end ‘Where Next?’, my vision document published in January 2010, one represents a refusal to adapt that puts us permanently on the margins of relevance. Above all things, that is my nightmare scenario.

3. The balance of research and teaching. This is a tough one, and there is no ‘right answer’. Queen’s has had a strong reputation for over a century as an elite educator of undergraduates (not, I hasten to add, an institution FOR elites). In the past 20 years, we have shot into the top spots on research, and were a member of the G10 research intensive schools before that number swelled to 13 a few years ago. I won’t go into details of our achievements here, of which we can be proud, but there is no question that a higher emphasis on research output at all Canadian universities from the big to the small has had an effect on teaching. Some of that is positive of course–I do think when we can communicate our research to students there is a value added to them (apart from what we deliver to society); but we are spending less time in the classroom (though more time of course answering emails and social media connected to students). So the question keeping me awake on this is–are we getting the balance right?

4. Are we preserving and enhancing Queen’s historic role as a major source of public policy and advice to government? There are lots of other players in the game right now. In the past, we have had a very prominent connection, for instance, with the federal civil service, with royal commissions, and even with politics.  This is a significant part of our past that does need preservation–even if we expand our capacity to advise and serve beyond the issues of social policy and economics that were once our staple and into newer areas such as bioethics, environment, industrial and innovation capacity, and Canada’s place in the world.

I will expand on each of these in subsequent blogs in due course. I look forward to your comments.