Category Archives: Uncategorized

On Dec. 6 and the Blue Lights

Today, Dec 6, marks a particularly sad and horrifying anniversary, of the Montreal Massacre, where 14 women, mainly engineering students at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, were gunned down simply because they were women and in Engineering. Like many people of my age, I remember very well what I was doing when I first heard the dreadful news: I had just returned home (then Halifax) from a trip to take my 8 month old daughter, Sarah, to visit her grandparents. I remember hugging her very close, feeling sorrow for the fathers and mothers who had lost their daughters that day, and worrying—what would the world be like when she became a young adult?

The Montreal Massacre coincided almost exactly with an unpleasant episode on Queen’ campus a few months previously, when banners were hung out of residence windows mocking the nascent “No means no” movement. I shan’t repeat the slogans, which were in many cases intended to be funny, but weren’t, even then (and especially not after Dec. 6 1989).  A lot of alumni wrote in to the university expressing how upset they were (I, by the way, was one of them). A few wrote in protesting “political correctness” on campus and arguing “boys will be boys”. It was not a happy time.

Nearly a quarter century later we as a country have made good progress in that few would question either the right or the profound success of women in engineering. Our own dean of Engineering and Applied Science is a woman, and three female engineers are presidents of leading universities out west. Our Faculty leads the country in enrolment of female engineering students. There’s similarly been a great deal of progress in social attitudes towards gender-based violence.  I’d be really surprised (and profoundly disappointed) if anyone among today’s generation of Queen’s students found anything remotely humorous in the subject of violence against women (which includes a number of dismal subcategories apart from sexual assault).

Lamentably, we’re not past acts of violence against women yet, and among other things the vigils every Dec. 6 remind us, annually of one of the worst incidents. It should remind us that similar ones occur daily throughout the country. And, yes, they do occur on campuses including (happily rarely) our own.

That’s why our Blue Light system is important. For nearly three decades it has been a key part (the AMS Walk-home service is another) of our community’s commitment to safety, a literal beacon of security. You shouldn’t ever walk by a Blue Light without reminding yourself of why it was put there. Sadly, there are some in our community who think it funny, daring, or fun, to set off our Blue Lights maliciously, or to vandalize them. There have been 38 activations categorized as mischief already this academic year, although the number could be much higher, as Campus Security was unable to determine the cause of another 142 activations.  Some of these malicious activations are related to a drinking game in which students try to earn a faculty jacket bar. While admittedly malicious blue light hits have decreased in 2012 as compared to 2011, this act still represents an incredible lack of judgment.

I would like to commend the AMS on their recent campaign to educate students on the use and misuse of blue lights and would also add that this AMS initiative can be looked on as a model for future initiatives promoting student safety.

I’m not usually this direct in my blog space, but guess what? It’s not funny. There are lots of arm bars you can earn for your jacket that mark worthy activities. Wearing the Blue Light bar says, to all students, female and male alike as well as your professors, “Look at me! I value my ability to set off or vandalize an important security alarm so I can have this badge much more highly than I value the safety of a student who might depend for her safety on its being functional! I think it’s cool to take our security teams away from watching for real incidents by distracting them with false alarms. Ha ha!”

If you are wearing it as a sign of having “pushed the button, drunk the beer, taped the can, and run”, then the Blue Light bar is, frankly, a badge of shame. Let me urge you not to pursue it, and not to engage in malicious triggering of Blue Lights (or, for that matter, fire alarms). Next time you see someone attempting to engage in one of these “harmless” pranks, ask them how they would feel if it were their sister or girlfriend were unable to receive assistance because of it. And remind them why we remember December 6.

A letter to Queen’s faculty

Dear Queen’s community member. Below please find the text of a letter emailed earlier this morning to all Queen’s faculty members with respect to the recent discussions, in media and on-campus, re the recent CAUT report involving the University’s response to an incident in the Department of History. While the letter is directed to members of our academic staff, the matter is of interest to the wider Queen’s community, so I share it here.
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I wanted to write a personal note to you and share my perspective on an issue related to our university that is currently the subject of significant attention, both internally and in the media. While I have addressed this issue in letters to some of you and in a recent blog, I thought it important that I continue to keep you informed on this issue.

As some of you know, a recent report issued by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) criticized the university’s response to incidents involving a term adjunct professor. The report also called for a number of actions from Queen’s, including an apology.

Let me begin by saying that I believe the report’s findings to be incomplete, inaccurate, and based on a portion of the facts in this case. As a result, subsequent media coverage has portrayed this as an issue regarding academic freedom. I can assure you that the principles of academic freedom are central to this university’s values and are at the heart of everything we do. This particular case, however, is fundamentally not about academic freedom. It is about behaviour in the classroom that was reported to have created a hostile and unsafe learning environment for students. As a result, students expressed concerns, and the university took those concerns seriously and raised them with the faculty member in question.

As I stated to the Globe and Mail when asked for comment on this subject earlier this week, this is a complex issue and, for many reasons, it is not appropriate to discuss all of the facts of the case in a public forum at this time. As an employer, the university has been placed in a difficult situation when asked to respond to the CAUT report and concerns by faculty, students and alumni, because we must take care not to violate any privacy or confidentiality concerns.

It’s important to emphasize that the CAUT is not an impartial investigatory body, and that while its jurisdiction – or, in this case, lack thereof – in this matter is an important component of the university’s position on the report’s findings, it is by no means the only factor.

Any issue of concern regarding faculty should be a matter between the university and the Queen’s University Faculty Association (QUFA) – the sole legal representative of Queen’s faculty. Provisions related to academic freedom are set out in the Queen’s-QUFA Collective Agreement. While the university was prepared to conduct an investigation after the complaints were made, QUFA discouraged it from doing so. Weeks later, however, QUFA proceeded to ask the CAUT to investigate. Similarly, instead of using the grievance and arbitration procedure in the collective agreement, which would have allowed an independent third party arbitrator to assess the validity of the university’s actions, QUFA contacted the CAUT, whose mandate is to represent faculty associations and unions representing academic staff, to conduct the investigation. I ask you to consider why QUFA would prefer the CAUT instead of an independent third party arbitrator to consider this matter.

This matter is now currently in litigation between a member of the Faculty Association named in the CAUT report versus the Faculty Association, a matter in which Queen’s is an intervenor. Because of this, more details about the matter may emerge in the coming weeks.

Please know that as not only the principal of this great university, but also as a former student, practicing historian, and now a professor in Queen’s Department of History I believe in the protection of academic freedom. I also believe, however, that students and teaching assistants should be able to study and work in a safe environment in which they may raise concerns without fear of hostility and retaliation. This matter is about much more than academic freedom, and I hope you will take that into account when reflecting on the issues at hand.

On Academic Freedom at Queen’s

The subject of academic freedom has come up at Queen’s lately, particularly following a controversial report from CAUT that has gained some attention in the media. Since academic freedom has been in the forefront of conversations of late, I thought I would share my thoughts on the subject.

Privacy rules prevent me from discussing the specific matter at issue in the CAUT report, save only to say that the report’s conclusions are both incorrect and based on incomplete information.  We can, however, debate academic freedom itself. In fact, we should. While we would all agree that it is a core value of any university, there is not universal agreement as to its definition and scope, let alone how to apply it.

Let me be unequivocal: I believe in academic freedom, meaning the freedom to debate, discuss and argue (collegially and with sound evidence) difficult, controversial and, yes, sometimes uncomfortable topics. I do not believe that doing so is incompatible with inclusiveness and the principles of equity. I do believe that both faculty members and students (and for that matter, staff) can engage in difficult conversations and debate about complex matters, and that they can indeed use language that may not be “politically correct” (to use a phrase I do not find helpful) in our current climate.

That is what being at university is all about. It is about learning; learning about the past, the present, and the future. It is about learning about advances and new technologies and how our world is changing. It is about unraveling, deconstructing, testing and proving everything from a scientific theorem to a philosophical proposition. Academic freedom gives all of us the right to express our views in a safe environment without fear of sanction.

However, academic freedom does not occur in a vacuum. Our world has changed dramatically in recent decades, and our families, neighbourhoods and campuses reflect these changes. Queen’s strives to be an inclusive environment where everyone is welcome no matter their background. This is what makes us a destination for exceptional people. It is thus important that in having tough conversations about tough topics that they be appropriately contextualized.

The diversity of our classrooms and lecture halls does not mean that we cannot have those difficult discussions; it does not mean we should not discuss issues that make some members of our community uncomfortable because their views have been challenged. It does mean that we need to be aware of our surroundings and our audience, and ensure our comments, even when made for reasons of provoking discussion, are being made for sound academic, scholarly and pedagogical purposes.

Academic freedom and freedom of expression are enshrined in our way of thinking at Queen’s, and will continue to be. I encourage you to continue the debate.

Another Matariki Network meeting come and gone

This morning we wrapped up two days of meetings of the Matariki Network of Universities (MNU). The Board essentially consists of the principals (or presidents or vice-chancellors) of the seven members of the MNU, who routinely bring their Chief International Officers and sometimes their Provosts or equivalent to the meetings.

The MNU, for those who don’t know, is a now 3 year old initiative involving ‘7 Sisters’ (the word ‘Matariki’ is Maori for the constellation the Pleiades, or 7 sisters), one—and one only–from each country. Apart from Queen’s, the sole Canadian representative, the universities are Dartmouth (US), Durham (UK), Western Australia (AU), Otago (NZ), Tübingen (Germany) and Uppsala (Sweden). All are mid-sized, research-intensive schools with a strong reputation for teaching and residential experience; none is in a national capital. For more details you can visit some of my previous blogs, for instance on the MNU meetings 21 months ago in Perth, Australia.

This was the 3rd meeting of the Board since the MNU was formed and it was very good to see every member institution represented, even if Hurricane Sandy caused one or two people to have to cancel and occasioned some schedule reshuffling. It was especially useful to have delegates in Kingston and at Queen’s, many for the very first time. Among other things, they got a good sense of our geographic situation, size, architecture etc. Lots of student activity was evident (which hasn’t been true in a couple of our previous meetings which occurred outside academic term-time for the host university).

The Network has thus far been quite successful at putting like-minded researchers from member universities together. Several research workshops have been held, including one two years ago at Queen’s on sustainable energy. Joint research projects have ensued, and our respective Vice-Principals (Research) met a few months ago to advance this agenda. It is worth noting that a great undergraduate initiative, Inquiry@Queen’s is open to video-participation from Matariki-enrolled students, which takes some doing with the time zone differences involved!

Much of our time at the Board meeting just finished was spent on 3 related issues:

1) how we can collectively improve student mobility, taking advantage of the special relationships within the Network. A key follow-up item from the meeting will be greater connections between our own student affairs personnel at all schools, and international program offices;

2) Benchmarking (in essence, comparison of how all of us are performing on a variety of metrics both in research and teaching, including curriculum development, and how we can learn from ‘trusted international peers’ of similar character;

3) Reputational enhancement. This is a very important one for Queen’s as I have often noted that we are very well known in Canada but less so abroad, something I would very much like to change. It turns out that our sister Matariki schools face the same reputational challenge in other countries than their own, so we have agreed to mutually promote each other by various means. Our Alumni, Communications and Marketing Directors will be in touch with one another, and Queen’s own Director of Marketing, Kathleen Vollebregt, weighed into our discussions with some useful suggestions.

I’m often asked why all this is important and whether resources should be devoted to it. I think the answer is an unqualified and loud ‘yes!’. Apart from the benefits our students will derive from access to programs and opportunities at 6 other extraordinary universities, the Network can provide a key plank in our overall internationalization strategy. As the reputation of the Network itself and its name recognition grows, the expectation is that this will translate into higher international profile for each member individually.

From my point of view the meetings, which I chaired as the Network Chair for the past 21 months (an honour and pleasure which has now passed to Prof Christopher Higgins, Vice-Chancellor and Warden of the University of Durham), were very productive. The trick now, as with most such exercises, is to ensure that we follow through on the best of the many good ideas that were floated in our discussions. Meanwhile, let me express my thanks for the outstanding work of staff in the Office of the Vice-Provost (International), the Office of the Vice-Principal (Research), the Principal’s Office, and Innovation Park, as well as the faculty and staff who joined particular meetings to lend their expertise. Conferences such as these are not put together without a lot of hard work and planning and the Queen’s team did a fabulous job.

Initiative at Queen’s

Today we will have a campus community “sneak preview” of the public launch of Queen’s Initiative Campaign. This campaign, the most ambitious in Queen’s history, will bring much-needed resources to the University, and it will also allow us to tell our story, already familiar in a national context, to a wider, global audience. It is a campaign with some bold targets, and one which is built on the theme of “initiative”, the spirit of which has long been a Queen’s trademark and, in my view, remains a distinguishing feature of our University among a pool of very fine Canadian research-intensive institutions. I see evidence of Queen’s spirit of initiative everywhere I travel, in student-led activities, in the efforts of our faculty to improve teaching and pioneer new areas of research, and in the commitment of our staff to go above and beyond, both on campus and in the outside community, every day. I see it in our alumni, who have gone on to great success in their own careers because for decades we have attracted students committed to both thinking and doing, and because we nurture those qualities during their time with us.

The Campaign goals reflect Queen’s priorities, as worked out over the past 3 years in a series of rigorous planning exercises, during which our various campus constituencies, faculty, students and staff, were widely consulted. The Academic Plan and Strategic Research Plan, along with various Faculty-specific planning documents, have provided us with the general priorities for which we will raise funds, and with a clarity of mission that will be extremely helpful in telling past and potential new benefactors not only about where we have been but about where we are going.

Because the Initiative Campaign is all about supporting what it is we do, and do well, it is fitting that it be unveiled at home on the Queen’s campus. I do hope that you will all support the Campaign in whatever way and at whatever level you feel comfortable. Nothing speaks more loudly to our alumni and our potential supporters than the support we ourselves commit to our own initiatives.

As we proceed full steam ahead into the Initiative Campaign, I want to thank you for all you do for Queen’s and look forward to working with you as we press ahead to successful conclusion, in 2016, when Queen’s University will celebrate its 175th birthday.