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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.





Freedom of Speech

Although I am out of town on business I was advised of a situation that took place on April 2, where a display erected by a Queen’s student group was removed from the JDUC by Campus Security. The display, titled “Queen’s Free Speech Wall,” included racial slurs and hate speech that, quite simply, have no place on our campus.

Freedom of speech in Canada is protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a fundamental freedom. The very nature of the subject will usually stir controversy as freedom of speech is protected, but it is not absolute. I am a proponent of the right to free speech, particularly in an academic environment. Having said that I believe that all members of our community have a right to feel safe and respected while on our campus. Demeaning each other based on race, religion or any other affiliation will not be tolerated. I believe that our students, faculty and staff have the right to be a part of this community without fear, discrimination or harassment of any kind.

We have a duty to foster a safe and inclusive environment, one in which ideas can be expressed and challenged in a meaningful and respectful way.

I understand the group has been permitted to erect a new display. I trust this one will celebrate freedom of speech without infringing on the rights of others and, more importantly, hurting or excluding members of our community.

Time-to-completion and extensions for graduate students

Yesterday I received an open letter regarding a topic of great importance to many of our graduate students: time-to-completion and extension policies. I want to address some of the issues raised in that letter in hopes that it will alleviate some of the concerns our graduate students have about this matter.

Since last September, the Graduate Studies Executive Council (GSEC) has been working to revise our current policies, which had not been updated in more than a decade. The policy changes that have been proposed will be voted on by the GSEC at its March 14 meeting. It won’t be, however, the first time these issues are raised: the proposed policy changes have been discussed at all Queen’s faculty councils and committees, with feedback provided directly to the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) and to GSEC.

I think it’s important to make a few things clear, particularly in light of the concern I understand these proposed changes have been causing in the graduate student community.  Most importantly (and the issue I fear has been the most misconstrued) is that the proposed policies do not impose a hard limit on graduate students’ time-to-completion, or make extensions difficult to obtain. What will change is that PhD students will be required to receive an extension – which can be granted by their department – beginning in their fifth year. In the past, students did not have to obtain an extension until Year 7 – a timeline that was the longest in the province.

There is no doubt that the question of time-to-completion can affect a student’s work, finances, and job opportunities. It also has an impact on our supervisors, and our ability to accept new students. We feel it is in everyone’s interest to encourage timely progression, while keeping in mind, of course, that there can be a number of circumstances that may prevent a student from completing his or her degree in the minimum required time. That is why extensions are available, with the approval of the department in the first instance and the SGS should a subsequent extension be warranted.

Annual mandatory progress updates, which were initiated last year, are also designed to help both students and faculty members better assess how students are doing, identify any barriers that have impacted the research and/or research progress, and to set goals and objectives for the next year. This formal process encourages conversation between student and supervisor, and ensures that we are supporting students in a systematic way much earlier in the process than we may have before.

The SGS has also been working to expand its support services to better help students with time-to-completion issues. Expanding Horizons, a series of workshops and seminars to support the academic, personal, and professional success of our graduate students, along with their Dissertation Boot Camps, aimed at providing the resources to accelerate the writing process for students, can all be of great benefit.

The key, ultimately, is in striking the right balance between allowing students to pursue original, carefully executed research, while ensuring that research is possible to complete within the time allocated for a doctoral degree. We hope these new parameters will help to provide some additional structure for that process.

Ultimately, this university is committed to working with our students to ensure that degrees are completed in an efficient manner, and that extensions are not onerous to obtain when they are needed. These policies, if they are passed, will not interfere with that commitment.

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.