September 1, 2009
Today, as summer winds down and we prepare for the return of the majority of our students, I begin my term as Queen's 20th Principal. Over the past two months, I have been busy re-familiarizing myself with campus, getting brought up to date on issues, and making some progress on my own research. I am very grateful to all who have welcomed me and my wife Julie, and we both look forward with great excitement to the next five years. When I arrived as a frosh 33 Septembers ago, I could not have imagined that I would ever have such an opportunity or responsibility. It is one, quite simply, that I need your help to carry out well.
This is a vexing juncture in our University's 16-decade history. Not for the first time, we are facing significant financial problems. In the 1860s, a bank failure nearly wiped Queen's out. The current situation is not as serious, but we cannot afford to let it become so. We face long-term financial hurdles, but I am confident that we will surmount them.
Our current challenges afford us an opportunity to reaffirm our core values while at the same time reconsidering some aspects of how we do our work. They provide a context for our academic planning, but they should not drive it. We should do such planning even if we had an overabundance of resources.
Over the coming weeks I will be working with Deans, Vice-Principals and Department Heads on an academic planning process to guide us through the next five years. When completed, our Academic Plan will form the hub of a wider integrated planning process that will eventually embrace campus planning, fund-raising (as we head into the next major campaign) and other aspects of the university's activities.
I hope by December to have developed a series of proposals and topics that will focus our discussions. In the winter term, we will be asking units to respond with their own plans, or to update existing plans to mesh with this exercise. The hope is to make this as participatory and "ground-up" an exercise as possible, while being mindful that we must somehow distil all the collected aspirations of our faculties, schools and departments into a common, clear and concise set of institutional priorities.
That being said, the financial challenges facing us are real and pressing, and they must be addressed. How we do so is a matter for discussion, but let's move forward to find solutions. What might these solutions be? They fall under three broad categories: revenue generation, cost control and innovation.
First, we need to increase our revenue from all sources, including government grants, tuition, alumni, and benefactors. This past year, the Revenue Generation Task Force discovered some promising areas that I intend to explore. I will be working hard with our Advancement staff, currently in transition to new leadership and from whom we will demand much in the coming years. The task of fund-raising in the current economic climate is difficult, but it is certainly not impossible, as the recent Buchan gift to Mining Engineering illustrates.
Secondly, we must continue to find ways to control costs: it is difficult to persuade government and donors to give more, if we at the university haven't done everything we can internally. These cost controls must, of course, be informed by academic planning: the aim is not to reduce expenditure purely for its own sake, but to ensure that our funds are used effectively and in a way that prioritizes and enables the core activities of the university -- teaching and research.
Some of the costs we face are the product of past decisions. It is clear the total cost of the Queen's Centre will be higher than first anticipated and that fundraising for the Centre will be more of a challenge than had been hoped. These have added some expenses to the operating budget, though we have mitigated some of this burden by postponing the subsequent phases of the Queen's Centre and by taking advantage of interest rates that are considerably lower than first estimated. The Queen's community will soon be reaping the benefits of the Queen's Centre, as it enriches the quality of life on campus for students, faculty and staff. We must now assume the responsibility of paying for those benefits. In that respect, the Queen's Centre is similar to previous construction projects, some of which involved debt repaid over time. In this case, we have learned some lessons for the future. Given our financial situation, any new construction project must be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny. The Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration) portfolio is being reorganized as a first step, and further measures will be taken to move the university to a much more integrated model for planning and resource allocation. Mechanisms are already in place to alert us to any potential problems so they can be addressed early, and more will be added.
Just as we need to manage the costs of physical infrastructure, we also need to ensure that our spending on salaries and benefits produces maximum benefit to the whole university community. I will be meeting with employee group representatives to explore whether we can arrive at some kind of shared solution to the projected deficit.
The problems we face are shared. You own a piece of them, as does the Board of Trustees. So do our students and our alumni. And, now, so do I, as Principal, as a professor, as an alumnus, and as the parent of a current Queen's student. For the good of the institution, we must work together to find solutions.
Thirdly, we need to pursue innovation across all spheres of our activity: in the classroom, in the laboratory, in the library, and in our approach to administrative and financial problems; not, of course, innovation for its own sake, but innovation that will make our university (and ultimately the world) a better place. The world is increasingly competitive and we must realize that we are in a race with our peers to attract the best and brightest students, faculty and staff. A key element in that race will be our ability to distinguish ourselves from our peers. Innovation -- and, more broadly, imagination -- should be key elements in our forthcoming planning process.
As I write this letter, I have beside me a book sent to me by an old friend. It is the 1904 biography of our 7th principal, George Munro Grant, himself a significant innovator in Queen's history. He led the university towards a more external, public focus, with a vision of the academy as the generator of both ideas and of citizens making those ideas work in society for the common good.
There will be occasions when I will be asking myself "What might Grant (or Wallace, or Deutsch) have done in this circumstance?" Or "How would our legendary former registrar, Jean Royce have approached this student-life issue?"
There are some living former Principals, and many emeritus professors, to whom, among many, many others -- alumni, students, staff and faculty -- I will be turning to for advice. For some of our challenges, the past can provide a moral compass and remind us of the things that have made Queen's University great. For others, we must realize that our world, and postsecondary education in general, are very different from what they were in Grant's day, just as universities of his time were not those of 13th century Paris or even 18th century Scotland. We can take guidance from our predecessors, but we must find a path of our own making. Similarly, we can and should look to our peers for "best practices," but those practices won't be best if they don't fit Queen's.
One aspect of our renewal will involve a review of some aspects of our governance structures. This question has been raised in several contexts, but in particular at last spring's University Council. Governance is a somewhat separate issue from resource allocation or academic planning, but in the complex organism of a university, very few things are completely independent or disconnected. We must strive to achieve a model where our academic planning and our resource allocations are intelligently intertwined.
So: a lot of work and discussion lies ahead. My own priorities for the next year include, apart from our budgetary issues, getting acquainted with campus and hearing from as many people as I can; launching our new university planning process; re-engaging with government, alumni and benefactors; and addressing some administrative areas that require attention. Personally, I can make the following commitments to faculty, staff and students, as well as to our external stakeholders and members of the larger Queen's family of alumni and benefactors:
Let me leave you with three questions to think about over the next couple of months, as a warm-up to our forthcoming planning activities:
There may be divergent aspirations in various quarters of our community. Identifying institutional objectives and making hard choices will not be easy, but we owe it to ourselves and to our University to make the effort. So please ponder these questions, discuss them with your colleagues, and send me your ideas. To facilitate this, I have set up a comment link on the Office of the Principal's website.
In closing, I want to thank former Principal Tom Williams for his outstanding leadership over the past 16 months, and for his generosity with his time during the last several weeks of transition. I thank the joint Senate-Board selection committee for having entrusted me with the Principal's chair for the next five years. And I thank you, for all you have done, do today, and will do in the coming years for this remarkable university.
Prof. Daniel Woolf, Arts'80
Principal and Vice-Chancellor