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Checking in with the chancellor

Jim Leech speaks to the Gazette about his memorable moments this year and his thoughts on the future. 

"Chancellor Jim Leech"
Jim Leech (MBA'73) is the 14th chancellor of Queen's University. (University Communications)

We are now getting to the end of another calendar year here at Queen’s and it’s always a time to pause and reflect. In your role as chancellor, what are some of your favourite memories from the past year?

Well for starters let me say I always enjoy talking to students and hearing about their experiences at Queen’s and their many hopes for their futures.

But when it comes to specific memories, I think of our convocation ceremonies. I’ve now had the privilege of taking part in 87 different ceremonies as chancellor, yet each one is unique. They are always so uplifting and it’s a real pleasure to see the pride and joy on the faces of the students and their families when they cross the stage to officially receive their degrees.

"Chancellor Leech and Bruce Jameson"
Chancellor Jim Leech, right, congratulates Bruce Jameson upon receiving his degree more than 70 years after first beginning his studies at Queen's. (University Communications)

I also always look forward to helping hand out the annual Ballie Awards for Excellence in Secondary School Teaching. These awards go to high school teachers who have made a lasting impact on a current Queen’s graduating student’s life, and the teachers are almost always surprised when they get the call to invite them to our university to be honoured. There is never a dry eye in the house during these ceremonies.

And speaking of meaningful moments, this fall I was thrilled to take part in a convocation ceremony where we conferred a degree in engineering chemistry to Bruce Jameson, some 70 years after he left Queen’s. It turns out he had just one course left to complete back in 1946, but he landed a job with a large petroleum company in Sarnia, got married, and never made it back to Kingston to finish his degree. After hearing this story, his grandson looked into his successful career and then got in touch with our engineering faculty to see what could be done. Soon after he was on his way to Queen’s. He’s now 93 years old and it was a special honour for me to hand him his official Queen’s degree in front of his proud family and a full house.

You recently led the Joint Board/Senate Committee to Review the Principalship. As part of this committee’s work, you helped reach out to people in the Queen’s community and beyond to talk about our university both present and future. What did you learn during this process?

We know that people who have close connections to Queen’s feel passionately about the university and in my role as chancellor they do not hesitate to express their candid opinions. Without exception, the people who talk to me agree that Queen’s is now in a position of relative strength and that the Principal has done well against the objectives set by the Board over the past eight years. If we look at our strategic framework, we are a leader in student experience and we are strong financially, having met many of our goals around financial sustainability.

We are also improving when it comes to internationalization and we have plans in place to take it to the next level. But as Principal Daniel Woolf noted in his recent letter to Queen’s community, we have much more work to do on the research pillar to live up to our potential, and that has to be an important focus in the future.

Overall there is a sense of optimism and self-confidence on campus that was not there eight years ago – people are looking to improve on what is already an improved state and are up to the challenge of making the university even better.

Recently Principal Woolf announced he will no longer be seeking a third term after his current term is finished in June 2019. Thinking about some of your own experiences, what advice would you have for Principal Woolf during his final 19 months?

I know that Principal Woolf took time this fall to think about his future and ultimately decided to withdraw  from consideration for a third term. I can imagine it was a difficult decision for him to make given the dedication and drive he brings to the job and his desire to help Queen’s achieve excellence on a variety of important fronts.

On the train back to Toronto after the principal’s announcement, I was reflecting on my own experience when I retired as CEO of Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. I had given 18 months’ notice and I found that in a way it was quite liberating. It allowed me to sit down and make a list of the five most important files I wanted to be absolutely dedicated to finishing before my term was up. I could really concentrate on those things that I believed were most important for the organization.

I think it is just human nature. Everyone I have talked to who has retired and had the luxury of time after giving notice seemed to say to themselves, ‘I can finish some of these files and make sure the organization I leave will be even better and more sustainable.’ So I wouldn’t be surprised to see the principal do just that: make a list of things he has started that he wants to get to the finish line at Queen’s and be really dedicated in his efforts towards achieving them. If you look at the letter he shared a month or so ago with everyone, you will see what the thinks is most important; I would expect that is where he will concentrate his efforts. Examples that come to mind are initiatives around truth and reconciliation, diversity and equity, faculty renewal and the research file. 

But I also believe he has much to be proud of already. There are so many significant initiatives he has helped champion: mental health; financial stability; good student, faculty and staff relations; major fundraising; and new residence buildings and academic spaces. I believe his legacy is clear.

For our students, do you have any advice for them as they get ready to write their exams and then prepare for next term?

For many they are going to be pleased with the progress they made in the first term. For those, my advice would be: if it worked in the first term, keep doing it in the second term. But for first-year students in particular, I know university can be a bit of a rude awakening. They may be used to being at the top of their class but then all of the sudden they are not and that can be very stressful. This is the time I would advise them to pause and assess what worked and what needs some attention. And if a course correction is needed, I’d encourage them to remember it may not necessarily be a large change and that there is a lot of assistance on campus to reach out to, including mental and physical health supports.

For some other students, the winter term may bring a new focus on graduating and starting their careers. I would encourage them to take advantage of the resources on campus as well. There are people dedicated to supporting students as they make their way through Queen’s and as they begin to build their bright futures. And, I look forward to seeing them at convocation!