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Homecoming 2013: Email to the Queen’s community

The following is an email I sent to Queen’s staff, faculty and students on October 3:

Dear Queen’s community,

As you know, this weekend will mark the first Queen’s Homecoming in five years. As I said last year when I announced Homecoming’s reinstatement, the decision to bring the event back wasn’t one that was made lightly. We all remember why it was cancelled, and no one wants to see those incidents repeated.

We all have a role to play in ensuring this year’s Homecoming is a safe and successful event that is respectful of Queen’s, our alumni, and the Kingston community. Our consultation with a variety of stakeholders – Kingston police, city officials, Kingston Fire & Rescue, students and alumni – has been with this common goal in mind.

While I have been encouraged by the reduction in street parties and other unsafe activities in recent years, safety and respect trump tradition, and Homecoming must be a safe and respectful event for all. That’s one of the reasons I recently visited some student houses in the near-campus neighbourhood – to have frank discussions with students about what we want Homecoming to be. I was encouraged by how many of them shared my sentiments.

As I said in an op-ed recently published in the Kingston Whig-Standard, my hope is that 25 years from now our current students will return to campus and to Kingston as alumni to reconnect with each other, meet the class of 2042, and visit the city they called home during some of the most transformative years of their lives.

Many of you have worked incredibly hard to make this year’s events a success, and for that I give you my profound thanks. I hope to see many of you this weekend.

Cha Gheill!

Daniel Woolf, Artsci’80
Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Another Successful Move-in Day Behind Us

Yesterday, Sept 1, was move-in day, which this year occurred about as early as it possibly can owing to the early date for Labour Day (today). The weather cooperated; despite the previous day (and today) being very damp and overcast, we had brilliant sunshine and clear skies until late in the evening when the thunder and lightning started (perhaps signifying the noise and high energy now unleashed on campus with the return of the undergraduate population and the arrival of new students).

First year students gather outside of residence on the September 1st move-in day.

First year students gather outside of residence on the September 1st move-in day.

My wife and I always do more or less the same thing on Move-in day. For the fifth straight year, we spent several hours walking up and down residence hallways, randomly stopping in rooms to say hello to new students and their families as they move in, answer any questions they may have, and find out a bit about where they are from, and what they are taking. We typically start out at Jean Royce Hall before coming to main campus. We took a couple of short breaks, first to join the mass Oil Thigh in front of Victoria Hall at noon, and then a couple of hours later to grab a soft drink at the Lazy Scholar before tackling the six floors and four wings of Vic, our final stop on the tour. We chatted also to dons, check-in staff, custodians, and the security squads who were directing traffic efficiently.

Queen’s does move-in exceptionally well; I have seen it and indeed participated in it at several other schools either as an administrator or a parent and I think it moves more smoothly here than anywhere else. We received lots of compliments for our staff, both on the move-in and on the pre-move orientations and welcomes that have taken place over the past several months, many of them held outside Kingston. One set of parents whose child had offers from several prestigious business schools finally picked Queen’s Commerce program because of the way their student, and they, had been treated from the point of application to arrival that day. So kudos to every staff member and student involved.Our new students are in single rooms, double rooms, and a few of our triple and quadruple rooms. They come from near and they come from far. We met several from outside the country, many from the GTA, and a whole bunch from the west, especially Calgary. Roughly half of them either have older siblings or parents who are/were Queen’s students. They are studying everything from music to life sciences, commerce to psychology, nursing to engineering. Their rooms are full of duffel bags and suitcases, computers, musical instruments, and the seemingly omnipresent mini-fridges that didn’t exist (like a lot else including the computers) when I arrived as a frosh in Brockington House in 1976, a day I still recall in extraordinary detail all these decades later. It is unquestionably one of my favourite days of the academic year, even though by the end of it Julie and I are typically drenched in sweat and pretty stiff from the stair climbing.

One room we always visit without fail is my old room in Brockington (3rd floor). This year neither of the new tenants were in when we knocked on the door, but we did get to chat with the two female students, and their parents, across the hall (in what I think of as Tom and Pete’s room because that’s who was in it in ’76-’77).

Greeting an incoming student and her parents at my old residence, Brockington House

Greeting an incoming student and her parents at my old residence, Brockington House

This year move-in was a little extra special. The previous evening Julie and I had dinner with 3 new students from Calgary (which city sends us a lot of students and has a very active and well-organized alumni branch). Louisa Kennett, Claire Gummo and Laura Pattison, now all ensconced in their residence rooms, are the children of Queen’s alumni who were classmates and friends of mine and with whom I have been in more or less constant contact for well over 30 years.  Apart from being such a wonderful opportunity to get together with old friends and greet their children, our dinner was yet another reminder of the way family dynasties are created at this university. (One family we met at move-in in fact represented 4 straight generations of Queen’s students!) But we are always starting new family traditions–many of the students yesterday are the first in their family to attend Queen’s (as was I way back when), but we would not be at all surprised if some of the younger siblings who came along for the ride catch the tricolour spirit and join us when their time comes. We’ll look forward to welcoming them at a future move-in.Wishing everyone a happy, fun and safe Orientation week,


Daniel Woolf and Julie Gordon-Woolf

Israel Delegation Days 4 to 7: A Different Approach to Research?

I’ve been back for a couple of days from my expedition, with executive heads of five other Canadian universities, to Israel and the West Bank. The extremely packed schedule of meetings allowed very little time for blogging while on the trip so I am writing this continuation of my previous post after having been back for a couple of Haifa overlooking the Bahai Gardens

After 3 days visiting Jerusalem and the West Bank (see previous post re Birzeit University) the group relocated to Haifa overnight and then took a visit to the Technion, which might best be described as Israel’s counterpart to MIT or CalTech, a university focused entirely on science, engineering and medicine. It’s set up on a mountain and we had a series of presentations by the president and members of his team. Our last visit there was with a faculty member in Engineering who by coincidence is originally from Kingston (he was an LCVI grad) and who maintains a research relationship with our own Prof Ian Moore of Civil Engineering.

Following the trip to Haifa we made our way to Tel Aviv for the rest of the trip. Unlike Jerusalem, Tel Aviv is an entirely modern city, which did not exist a century ago. It is right by the sea, which adds a bit to the humidity which was absent in Jerusalem.

Our visits during the final 3 days of the trip included Tel Aviv University, where on behalf of AUCC I cosigned (with University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon) an MOU with AUCC’s counterpart body in Israel. We were hosted for the meeting by President Joseph (Yossi) Klafter, whom I previously met on my 2010 visit with then-premier Dalton McGuinty. The signing was attended by staff from the Canadian embassy, who also provided us with a briefing the following day. That was on Monday the 8th. Two days later, on the 10th, I departed from our group to make my own trip back to TAU. In the morning I met with TAU history students and faculty members (including my Oxford grad school friend and fellow 17th century British historian Prof David Katz). In the afternoon I paid another visit to President Klafter, this time with the vice-dean of TAU’s Law School, to review the exchange arrangement between our two Faculties of Law (see . MOUs can be rather empty affairs unless there is funding to make them work. Both Queen’s and TAU are highly optimistic about this one, thanks to generous funding from Queen’s alumnus (and former Rector) Jeremy Freedman and his family. There are other research relationships between Queen’s and TAU, in astrophysics, history, and biology, with the potential for others given common areas of interest.

Meeting with TAU president Joseph Klafter (2nd from right) and colleagues

Meeting with TAU president Joseph Klafter (2nd from right) and colleagues

The trip to Tel Aviv also included an afternoon at the Weizmann Institute. Named for its founder, Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, this is a remarkable institution which is not really a university but a centre for advanced research. If the Technion is Israel’s MIT, the closest analogy here would be with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey (though unlike the IAS, the Weizmann has no non-science schools, and, unlike IAS, does have a graduate program).

Lessons of the Visit

Some common themes kept cropping up in our visits. First, given the the focus on science and technology, one might think that Israeli universities and funding bodies have given over the humanities and social sciences. One would be very wrong in making that assumption. We found robust departments and programs in those areas, and no particular bias among funding bodies. Among the most telling quotations of the trip was one we heard while visiting the Israel Science Foundation (ISF), which is a kind of omnibus combination of our SSHRCC, NSERC and CIHR, the Canadian “Tricouncil”. “We evaluate projects on their merits, not their areas. A project on Greek mythology is as likely to receive funding as one on nanotechnology”.

Secondly: Israel has famously become termed the “startup nation” thanks to a popular book by that title. So, one wonders, is there any appetite for basic, curiosity driven research? Or is all funding, within and outside universities, driven by the imperative of immediate commercialization potential?

The answer is surprising. The support for basic research is enormous. Indeed, speakers at the ISF and elsewhere scoffed at the idea that they would somehow steer research in the direction of short-term economic goals. They reminded us that none of the IT, engineering, and life sciences/biotech industry in Israel came about as a result of government policy (except a very favourable tax regime) or through steering research funding. Indeed, they could not understand why one would think differently. The ISF–and this was true at other places, even the Technion–regarded basic research as the seedbed from which commercializable products would spring naturally, and asserted that, vice versa, steering research toward short-term, applied goals would be bad policy in the long run.

Thirdly: how has the “startup” nation economic miracle occurred? Because the focus has been on “demand-pull” research and development from industry (including many global companies who have set up shop in Israel, Intel among them) rather than the “patent-push” approach we often take in Canada. Most (but not all) of the universities and institutions we visited had tech-transfer shops like Queen’s Parteq, to establish patents and build bridges to industry. The key difference is that there has also been attention to getting products across the infamous “Valley of Death” that lies between an invention and a scalable, marketable product (this is a problem that besets Canadian tech-transfer, and one which most countries have wrestled with–Germany has a slightly different approach, with its Fraunhofer Institutes, but has also largely solved the problem). The approach varied a bit from institution to institution–the Weizmann Institute for instance took the view that its faculty could not be involved in running their own spinoff companies because that would be a distraction from basic research: nevertheless they did license discoveries to companies and the revenues flowed back to the researcher and the institution. (Faculty benefit from their discoveries through revenues; IP however appears in nearly all places to belong to the institution, not the faculty member).

meeting with president of the Technion, Haifa

meeting with president of the Technion, Haifa

It’s not all perfect, of course. There are some gaps in the system. We consistently heard that government funding for major infrastructure in Israel was inadequate–there is no counterpart to the Canada Foundation for Innovation. And at least one person we visited with complained that the whole system could sometimes be a bit insular and immune to cross-fertilization from abroad (despite the large number of international research collaborations), and that pedagogy was too often stuck in a “sage-0n-the-stage” model of information-imparting rather than cultivation of a “discovery” model of teaching. And, finally, there is lingering concern about “runaway” industries–where the invention and startup business occur in Israel but then go offshore to other countries (that, however, was mitigated by the number of examples of major global companies that have, in fact, set up plants in Israel and by its hugely successful record in attracting foreign venture capital).

On the whole however, members of our group were deeply impressed by what has been accomplished economically and scientifically. Canada could profit by the example.

Visit to Israel and the West Bank 2013: Days 1-3

As I write this blog it is 830 at night in Jerusalem. The sun will be going down shortly and bring an end to the Sabbath (Shabbat). Israel’s work week begins on Sunday (which is like our Monday), and runs till Thursday. Friday is like our Saturday, and as of sundown much of the city shuts down as families gather for Shabbat celebrations.

Israel is, however, a complex country and there are plenty of non-religious people, significant Christian and especially Muslim populations, and businesses including hotels and restaurants that remain open even on Shabbat. One feature of hotels is the Shabbat elevator which runs between floors from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday in such a way that the observant do not have to push buttons, which is prohibited for them. (I am reminded of my late grandfather, an orthodox Jew who spent his life in London, England, and on Shabbat would neither use the ‘lift’ nor drive or even ride on the bus; he would walk to synagogue for services).

This is not my first trip to Israel. I was first here in 1978, when I was an undergraduate at Queen’s, and my family marked a golden wedding anniversary in Jerusalem for my grandparents Adolph and Regina. More recently, I was here 3 years ago on a delegation with then Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Currently I am on another delegation, this time with several other university heads from both AUCC and the U15 group of research intensive universities. AUCC Vice-President Christine Tausig Ford is on the trip, as is U15 Executive Director Suzanne Corbeil. For most of the group (the exceptions are myself and St Francis Xavier University’s Sean Riley) it is a first-ever visit. I’m back in large measure to pursue some of the linkages that were made on the 2010 visit and to reconnect with academics, administrators and researchers I met then. On Monday I will join with University of Calgary President Elizabeth Cannon in signing on behalf of the AUCC a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Tel Aviv. Queen’s also has a new bilateral MOU with the University of Tel Aviv’s Law School, and I will be spending time there later this week.

Day 1 (Thursday July 4)

We arrived via Toronto about noon on Thursday and met our guide Michal (an Israeli) and tour coordinator Dylan (who is based in Toronto). After a 12 hour flight nobody was especially fresh, so the first afternoon and evening allowed some cleanup time at the hotel and then a walk through the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem before an early(ish) dinner.

Day 2 (Friday July 5)

The day began with a briefing on entrepreneurial activity in Israel, famously described in a recent book as the ‘startup nation’. There is a huge amount of R and D here, and venture capital is quite easy to raise. Over the past 20 years the country has become a leading high-tech location, second only in some areas to Silicon Valley or perhaps Boston (which I recently described in the Queen’s Alumni Review) in its production of successful–and, necessarily, some failed–startups). Many foreign companies such as Intel have purchased Israeli startups and set up plants here.

The day included a visit to the downtown market (a sea of people!) at lunch and then a walk through the rest of Jerusalem’s old city, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and a visit to the Western Wall. Our guide, Michal, is a fount of historical and local knowledge.

The heart of the day was my first visit to Yad Vashem, the complex devoted to Holocaust studies which now includes the relatively new National Holocaust museum. Designed by Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the Museum proper begins with a narrative film (silent) montage depicting pre-war European Jewish communities and life, an image that gradually fades from view as the visitor progresses through the various galleries of the triangular-shaped building. Among the displays I noted was the carnage wreaked by the Nazis on Tarnow, a town in Galicia (now part of Poland) from which my paternal great-grandfather emigrated to Britain in the 1890s. I have to admit that this visit, perhaps unsurprisingly, overshadowed pretty much everything else I saw that day.

In the garden at Yad Vashem

In the garden at Yad Vashem

Day 3 (Saturday July 6)

Today included a float in the Dead Sea

a market stall in Jerusalem on Friday around 1 pm

a market stall in Jerusalem on Friday around 1 pm

and a walk through the Masada, both of which I had done on my 1978 visit. The business part of the day included a trip to the West Bank, specifically to one of the Area A regions (under Palestinian civil and military control) to visit Birzeit University.

Sighted this ibex on the wall outside the base of Masada

Sighted this ibex on the wall outside the base of Masada

This was my 2nd visit to Birzeit; after the last visit we signed an MOU to increase graduate student mobility. Birzeit is widely regarded as one of the best if not the best Palestinian university, with an enrolment of about 10,000 students. The buildings are mainly relatively new and largely privately funded. We were able to meet the Dean of Engineering, Dean of Grad Studies, the VP Academic (whom I met in 201o) and the President. Our host was Canada’s representative to the Palestinian Authority. Birzeit is starting up a new PhD program in social sciences and has an interest in developing an entrepreneurship culture among its students. It also has a keen interest in having Canadian academics spend some time there offering courses, which can be given in English and over a short period of 1-2 weeks. Associate Vice-Principal (Research) Dr Cynthia Fekken, who is also on this trip (and is depicted below having a brief ride atop a West Bank camel) will be following up on this MOU once we return to Canada.

Cynthia Fekken hitches a ride on a camel

Cynthia Fekken hitches a ride on a camel

Tomorrow we get much more heavily into the business meetings, so watch this blog space for updates every couple of days.

The importance of counting students

On Friday, 19 April I sent the following letter to Mayor and Council.


In light of the recent debate about whether to count post-secondary students in the proposed new electoral boundaries in Kingston, I believe that, as Principal of Queen’s, it is important for me to weigh in on the debate. The question at hand, which has caught the attention of many and engaged the community in an important discussion is this: Are post-secondary students residents of Kingston, or are they transients staying long enough to get a degree before moving elsewhere?

As a destination for students, Queen’s is responsible for their education, and health and wellness while they are studying here. We consider students to be members not only of the Queen’s community but also of the Kingston community. We actively encourage them to get involved in the city in which they live, work and volunteer. Our students respond by doing just that, in a variety of important ways.

Students maintain the right to vote in municipal elections as long as they are registered, just as any other resident of the city. While Queen’s administration, and I personally, represent the institution at large, and student government representatives maintain their own relationships with Council, individual students also rely on and deserve representation from members of Council. The fact that students move frequently and change addresses from year to year can and has presented challenges to both university officials and city staff. The university is committed to working with students and the city to ensure that everyone is counted. In the past, the Alma Mater Society has run campaigns to encourage students to get out and vote, and I am sure it will do so again for the next municipal election.

How to count a student population is an extremely complicated issue. The federal census normally counts students where they reside permanently, most likely with their parents in a different city or province. The Municipal Property Assessment Corporation is responsible for enumerating residents who live in the municipality. Again, this is not an easy task given that the majority of our students move frequently and landlords may not always report the names of their tenants. How the city determines its electoral boundaries and who is counted in a district is within its own purview; however, I believe it is extremely important to consider students who live in this city when assessing population numbers for electoral purposes.

Students bring an enormous amount of talent and energy to the communities in which they live and if the City of Kingston would like to see students remain in the area after graduation, it is important to count them now and make them feel part of the community.

The university has an excellent relationship with the City of Kingston and we will continue to work with Council to address the needs of the university and ultimately our students. It is important that a solution is found that will reconcile the city’s need for accurate information on the size of electoral districts with our students’ clear desire to be counted among the electorate for the districts in which they live.

I encourage councillors to find a resolution that will count our students among Kingston’s citizens.