Office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor

[Principal and Vice Chancellor]
[Principal and Vice Chancellor]
Subscribe to Blog feed
Daniel Woolf
Updated: 23 min 40 sec ago

The future is interdisciplinary

Tue, 11/07/2017 - 13:49

(This was originally published in The Hill Times on November 3, 2017 and carried by Universities Canada)

Given the complexity of social, political, environmental, economic and technological challenges facing the world, interdisciplinary research is very quickly becoming something no country can do without.

In the past 20 years, interdisciplinary research—studies involving researchers from multiple academic disciplines—has gone from ‘nice to have’ to ‘need to have.’ Today, given the complexity of social, political, environmental, economic and technological challenges facing the world, it is very quickly becoming something no country can do without.

Canada has the skills, talent and capacity to be an international leader in research and innovation. Seizing that opportunity will require concerted effort and unequivocal government support for interdisciplinary as well as traditional discipline-based research. This was recognized by last spring’s federally commissioned Fundamental Science Review, which included a clear call for greater support for research across disciplines. The authors of that document acknowledged research councils have made efforts in this area, but that more must be done to encourage multidisciplinary research.

Why, exactly? Because it exposes specialists in one area to other perspectives and ways of thinking, challenging received truths and spurring creativity and innovation. In many ways, academic disciplines are like houses, and with disciplinary research nearly everything happens “at home.” I personally like to get out of my own house from time to time, talk to other people, and encounter new perspectives.

In research, this “getting out of the house” has become essential because the problems to be confronted spill across borders, cultural divides and fields of knowledge. Take climate change. It’s not just an environmental issue: it has enormous economic and social implications. How can we possibly take on the challenge of modulating climate change without dealing with the impact of environmental change on local communities and Indigenous peoples?

Technology is another case in point. The rise of the ‘Internet of Things’ and advancement of artificial intelligence both present questions we’ve never had to ask before—questions that are not just of a technical nature but also ethical, legal and sociological.

In all these cases, “interdisciplinary” means not just across the hard sciences but the social sciences as well. To focus only on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is to leave a huge amount of intellectual capacity on the table. This is something that someone like Steve Jobs, for example, understood intuitively. It was the combination of engineering excellence and insight into how people interact that made Apple the company it is today.

The value of social science research is not always easy to quantify, though its absence is keenly felt. This was the case with the rollout of the HPV vaccine a few years ago. Some social science research to understand how the public might perceive the vaccine before it was unveiled could have strengthened communications around the launch—and prevented resistance from parents based on unfounded concerns that it would promote teenage promiscuity.

Some areas of research already employ an interdisciplinary approach regularly. It’s easy to find health science labs with biochemists, biologists, pharmacologists and other specialists working shoulder to shoulder. This needs to be broadened.

Interdisciplinary research is something we prioritize at Queen’s, from our degree program in neuroscience to our centres and institutes that bring together faculty from across departments. Our Dunin-Deshpande Queen’s Innovation Centre (DDQIC), which forms teams of young entrepreneurs from diverse disciplines, is testament to the strength of cross-disciplinary research. It was the incubator for Spectra Plasmonics, an entrepreneurial student project that won first prize at an international pitch competition in Singapore this year, beating 35 international teams.

So what needs to happen for Canada to see and support more interdisciplinary research? First, governments at all levels need to fund it. The bodies that administer that funding need to make sure they don’t impose conditions that serve as impediments to interdisciplinary research, effectively administering people back into the corners of their departments, or allow research projects to fall between the gaps.

Within academia, we have an opportunity to think about ways of forging new connections among disciplines, creating the structures to do this kind of work.

We are at the point today where we have to decide how we want to tackle the future. Greg Bavington, the executive director of DDQIC, often asks, “What kind of hockey team would you have if you had all the best goalies in the world—and no one else?” It takes a well-rounded team to achieve a common goal.

The future will be full of challenge and opportunity—most of which we cannot now predict. Rapid technological advances, geo-political challenges and climate change will test our ability to react and navigate. It is through interdisciplinary research teams that we will be best able to respond to these changes, to innovate, seize new opportunities and improve quality of life—both at home and abroad.

Cultural Appropriations Have Lasting Harm

Fri, 10/27/2017 - 11:17

It has come to my attention that plans are underway to organize a party known as “Beerfest” at an off-campus house. The history of this “annual” event is not a proud one; already numerous students who feel upset, scared and unsafe have contacted me to express their concerns.

Last year, participants wore costumes that consisted of unacceptable cultural appropriations, and through their actions alienated groups on campus or otherwise caused members of our community to feel belittled or uncomfortable.

It is clear from the language used by the organizers that they have failed to appreciate the lasting harm and the negative impacts this specific event had on others – particularly on racialized members of our community. The evident lack of empathy and judgement of the organizers (and any participants) is alarming and disappointing.

Clearly, some students fail to appreciate that our society has changed and progressed; people expect better of students, and rightly are less tolerant of insulting and hurtful behaviours towards others. We have seen and can expect more outrage from the community when students engage in unacceptable behaviours.

Queen’s strives to be a diverse and inclusive community. Any event that degrades, mocks or marginalizes a group or groups of people flies in the face of our shared values and is completely unacceptable. I am grateful that so many students, staff and faculty on campus share this belief and have had the courage to raise their concerns.

To any students who may be feeling negatively affected or in need of help, the university stands with you. I encourage you to speak to someone if you feel you need support. To those who have not yet learned to respect others, I hope you know we are paying close attention.

Priorities for 2017-18

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 12:15

 

How do your priorities advance the university’s mission and build the Queen’s of the future that you have envisioned and spoken about?

We are collectively building the Queen’s of the future every day. It’s a place of great traditions, and many of those traditions still survive from my time as a student. Yet no institution survives by staying in the same place. We need to adapt and change. We have made huge progress in the last few years, and I think our trajectory is simply going to continue upward.

My first priority as Principal was to put our financial and governance house in order, develop a culture of planning, and introduce a new budget model – which has been done thanks to the hard work of the Deans and our former Provost. The last few years have been focused on putting in place the conditions for future success, including drafting documents such as the Strategic Framework and the Comprehensive International Plan, ensuring sustainable enrolment growth, improving town-gown relations, and working on our talent management.

My current goals are based on a three-year rolling plan, which includes short-term and long-term priorities. The 2017-18 underlying themes are primarily: catalyzing change, which relates to faculty renewal and research prominence; respecting our community, which includes diversity and inclusion as well as encouraging safe and respectful behavior; and an infrastructure strategy, which will look at the question of how we eliminate $300 million worth of deferred maintenance in the next ten to twelve years and, of course, how we will pay for it.

The faculty renewal effort underpins many of these priorities. It will support our commitment to equity and inclusion, enhance our teaching and learning by ensuring students receive mentorship from faculty with diverse backgrounds and experience, and will help us attract promising early- and mid-career faculty who demonstrate exceptional promise as researchers.

Achieving these goals will put us in a position to reach for much greater success in research and innovation. This should lead us, five to ten years down the road, to an enhanced reputation as one of the most distinctive universities in the country in terms of the quality of its teaching, the quality of its students and faculty, the quality of its research, and its ability to innovate.

 

Looking ahead to the fifth year of our planned faculty renewal efforts, what difference will we see in the Queen’s of 2021-2022?

You will see nearly a quarter of the entire faculty complement turn over between new hires, retirements, and other departures. We will have a number of younger faculty out of recent PhD programs with somewhat different approaches to pedagogy, community relations, and interdisciplinarity. You will also be seeing some mid-career and senior appointments in designated fields to firm up areas of established excellence and promising emerging subjects. Hiring these 200 new faculty is a strategic investment that will lead us into the future.

These new faculty will want to come here because we will be one of Canada’s leading research intensive and teaching universities. They will want to be here because we are a place that recognizes innovation. They will be drawn by the good quality of life, the vibrant culture, and the affordability of living in Kingston. And they will have the chance to teach outstanding students in an environment where there is a great care for health and wellbeing, and in a place where we have made some thoughtful and strategic choices in terms of our research excellence.

The two primary lenses we are using to guide our hiring decisions are research excellence – the few areas at Queen’s that have the capacity to be really world-leading – and diversity and equity, where we know that we have some work to do.

We cannot aspire to be a world leader in every single subject and every single discipline. We have the capacity to make some choices to pursue areas – particle physics is an obvious one, but not the only one – where we can rank in the top 100 or higher. Making such choices does not disadvantage or diminish other areas. A rising tide lifts all boats.

The Provost and I will be taking advice from the Deans and the incoming Vice-Principal (Research and Innovation) in terms of what are the most promising areas. I say ‘areas’ rather than necessarily ‘departments’ or ‘disciplines’ since some will be multidisciplinary. We will also be appealing to our alumni, who recognize the importance of hiring and retaining the best and brightest, for support for endowed chairs and professorships to support our hiring plans.

 

Why are our research reputation and graduate student experience so important?

For Queen’s to be where we need to be five to ten years from now, we need to raise our game on research and graduate education.

We have an outstanding reputation as an undergraduate institution. We are one of the lead providers of a baccalaureate education, inside and outside the classroom. But it is important, if we are to be a truly balanced academy, that we are equally recognized for our research. It is not just an add-on – it is as big a part as the teaching and support for our faculty members.

Student engagement scores are solid on the undergraduate side. We have a little work to do on graduate engagement scores, and the Deans are looking closely at how we can improve those. It’s something we need to see some movement on in the next few years.

The graduate piece is really important because graduate students contribute enormously to the university. On the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) side of the house, they work on research projects that are very much connected with supervisor’s research programme. They are a big part of the engine that drives research. On the non-STEM side, where that model occurs sometimes but is less common, they contribute to the intellectual life of the humanities and social sciences departments. Even in my current job I still supervise one or two graduate students. They keep me on my toes intellectually. And graduate students also enhance our teaching as TAs and Teaching Fellows.

 

What do you hope to achieve by implementing the international strategy, and what impact will this have on Queen’s reputation?

Our international recognition has begun to improve through the great success our admissions and international teams have had in bringing people in. If you tell the world about us, they will actually come. Students who come here and return home build our reputation further.

Reputation is important. Apart from attracting fantastic students, it also has an impact on our ability to form international partnerships and secure international research funding. There is an awful lot of research money available in Europe and Asia, for example, which we could be accessing if we had more collaborative partnerships. We want to build on strategic partnerships with institutions we see as equal or better, opening up exchanges for students, creating opportunities for our faculty to have overseas sabbaticals and for faculty to come here on their sabbatical, and build more international research collaborations.

At the same time, there is also funding to be had in industry partnerships. That, in turn, helps the city and our country. All of this is part of a virtuous circle which will further enhance our reputation.

As I suggested above, interdisciplinarity is important. To solve the problems of the world, physicists have to work with chemists, biologists have to work with environmental engineers and, frankly, all of them need the advice of the social sciences, arts, and humanities. Looking ahead in the next few years, I would like to see us move in a bolder direction to organize interdisciplinary entities that bring together people from different departments and faculties.

 

What do employees need to know and be aware of as far as Queen’s financial competitiveness?

We have come a long way. We would not be hiring 200 faculty over the next five years if we had not got our financial house in order, and achieving this has very much been a collective effort.

On the staff side, Physical Plant Services has been managing our energy costs, saving us a good deal of money over the years. Advancement has been remarkably successful in getting donors to invest and I want to thank them for their hard work. Every dollar into the endowment produces 3.5 cents for particular things we need each year. When you have a large endowment, as we now do, that’s a significant chunk of money.

We have staff in research services and the faculties who work with faculty members and students generating scholarships and operating grants, and those who develop new programs which have brought in additional revenue to the university. Senate has been exceptionally busy in recent years overseeing the development of new programs and exercising its academic oversight of their quality.

And we have a very engaged board of trustees and committees with a lot of financial acuity and experience, and they have helped manage risk and given us a sound financial strategy.

There is still some work to do. We are getting close to resolving some of our long-standing pension issues, which remain a major financial threat. We have significant deferred maintenance challenges to address in the next few years, and it is not only our oldest buildings which need work. We are making progress, as you can see with the number of cranes, trucks, and workers around. Our Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration) is developing a strategic asset management plan so we can identify which buildings are the most urgent for refresh or outright replacement. We have also benefitted from strong returns on our investments and a continued increase in student enrolment, though we must remain cautious and continue to address some of our financial risks.

 

What are the growth areas for Queen’s reputation, and how do we get there?

Interim Vice-Principal (Research) John Fisher is leading our strategic research plan renewal process, and Deputy Provost (Academic Operations and Inclusion) Teri Shearer is leading the academic plan renewal. Both of these processes should be resolved later this year, pending approval by Senate, and those, in turn, will inform our next iteration of the strategic framework in 2019.

We need to develop a more pan-university approach to some of the things we do. As I suggested above, it’s essential that we bring social sciences, humanities, and arts into some of our more well-known areas of strength. Among other things, they are going to be enormously important in our future digital strategy.

There remain some health and wellness challenges, especially around alcohol consumption, where student leaders have been working with us, and with community members, to encourage safe drinking. University Council has a number of Special Purpose committees looking into matters of importance such as alcohol consumption on and off campus. And we need to remain vigilant on the issue of sexual violence, which is often related to abuse of alcohol.

Finally, we must consider what we can do to become a leader in policy innovation once again. I am expecting, in the next month or so, a report on the future of public policy at Queen’s. I think it will give us some very interesting guidance on directions we might take, and the larger issue of Queen’s in the Canadian and larger international public policy sphere. This obviously involves the School of Policy Studies but I think it can involve so many more of our faculty and students around the university.

 

Keep Homecoming Safe and Respectful

Wed, 10/11/2017 - 10:36

With Homecoming only days away, I invite you to participate in one of the many inclusive activities intended for the enjoyment of alumni and students alike. I also ask you to join me in encouraging everyone to demonstrate safe, respectful behaviour and good judgement throughout the weekend. Homecoming is a special event for Queen’s – it holds a unique place in the hearts of Queen’s students and alumni – and we all want this year’s Homecoming to be a success.

Please take time this weekend to welcome and help honour our returning alumni. Perhaps ask them to share some of their stories and memories that will have brought them back to campus. Join in activities such as Gaels games, tours, open houses, panels, and the ReUnion Street festival; these are all great opportunities for students to meet and greet returning members of the Queen’s family, who continue to cherish and support our university.

Safety for everyone is a paramount concern. Poor citizenship or irresponsible and unsafe behaviours can negatively affect peers and members of our Kingston community – so please consider the impact of your actions on others. For example, large street gatherings that block roadways, or taking up hospital spaces and resources with what could be preventable issues, divert emergency services away from urgent needs in the community. No one wants to see that happen.

During Homecoming, you are ambassadors for and representatives of Queen’s. The University expects you to set and follow a high standard of positive, community-minded behaviour, on and off campus, and ask that you, in turn, expect the same of your peers and of visitors. Have fun, but adhere to the Student Code of Conduct, and respect local laws and community standards. Misconduct can result in fines, charges, and referral to the university’s Non Academic Misconduct system.

In preparation for this year’s celebrations, Queen’s and the Alma Mater Society have made great efforts to promote student health and safety with the intent of reducing the number of student-related incidents involving city, public safety and healthcare resources.

Activities and services in place include Residence Life’s third annual Homecoming (HOCO) 101 – an opportunity for students in residences to learn about Homecoming, to prepare some spirit items for the weekend, and to receive reminders of safe drinking practices. There are also alternative evening activities, extended dining hall hours, water and snack distribution, additional capacity in the Campus Observation Room, additional AMS Walkhome staff and Dons on duty, and a host of other events to provide options to students, and promote personal safety. Students finding themselves in distress or needing support are encouraged to access all of the services available to help.

The Alma Mater Society executive and the Student Maintenance and Resource Team (SMART) will conduct a neighbourhood cleanup early Sunday morning. Please make the team’s work light by disposing of your trash properly and keeping the surrounding areas tidy.

Enjoy Homecoming, and please help me to encourage everyone to keep it a safe, respectful and inclusive event enjoyed this year and for years to come.