Please enable javascript to view this page in its intended format.

Queen's University
 

Wisdom, Knowledge and Imagination

Installation Address

Daniel Robert Woolf
20th Principal and Vice-Chancellor
Queen's University, Kingston

October 26, 2009

Good afternoon,

Chancellor Dodge, Board Chair Young, our honorary degree recipients, family, friends and colleagues:

The "installation" of a new principal is an occasion to celebrate a university's past, to reflect upon its present, and to speculate about its future.

We have had many disquisitions on what a university is. And I think we know what a principal is. But what about an "installation?"

DSC_8310-ed-w.jpg

It does make me wonder if a new principal may be like a car engine, dropped into the centre of the machine - perhaps straight from the factory; perhaps with some mileage - with a mandate to energize, propel forward and smooth out the bumps in the road, so that everyone inside can focus on where they are going and get there safely.

More than 100 years ago, James Cappon, then-head of our English Department, observed that the principal must be something of a scholar but still more of an administrator...something in the nature of a great public figure..."with a voice that reaches the ears of the country on all great questions, always ready to lead, always ready to take the platform."

This was a high bar then and it hasn't gotten any lower.

I stand before you today with great excitement and pride -- and a certain amount of trepidation!

No one is more aware than I of the challenges ahead, and of the enormous responsibility you have entrusted to me.

I am profoundly conscious of the debt that we all owe to my 19 predecessors; a number that includes that most legendary figure for whom this building is named, George Munro Grant, as well as a great principal of the century just passed, who like me, came most immediately from Edmonton, Robert Wallace.

The number also includes a number of living principals, and it is my great pleasure to recognize Principals Emeriti Ron Watts, Bill Leggett, and Tom Williams, the last of whom we are acknowledging today with an honorary degree for his lifetime of service to Canadian higher education.

But while a university must always live by its principles (le), it cannot live only by its principals (al).

Queen's has been built by its faculty, staff, alumni and benefactors; it has been built by enlightened governments; above all, it has been built by generations of our excellent students, as they go out into the world to pursue lives of great promise.

Thirty three years ago, I was one of those students, as I set foot on Queen's campus for the first time. I could not remotely divine the influence this university would exert during and after my four undergraduate years, and as the place where I would later start my academic career. Last year, I became a Queen's parent and now, principal and professor.

In my long list of thank yous, and with apologies for not naming everyone, I include my undergraduate professors, many here today.

I thank my undergraduate friends and former colleagues at the University of Alberta, McMaster and Dalhousie, several of whom are also here.

I thank the Board-Senate selection committee and the Board of Trustees for the honour of choosing me to lead my alma mater, only the third alumnus to do so (and like one of them, John Deutsch, I am a prairie kid!).

And I thank the wonderful staff with whom I have been working now for two months, though to them, it may seem rather longer!

My greatest debts lie close to home.

I thank my parents, Cyril and Margaret Woolf, who first pushed me in this direction. I am continually inspired by my physician father's breadth of interests and his professionalism; and my professor mother's love of literature, and her tenacity in starting university in midlife. Both are here today, as is my younger brother, Jeremy, professional architect.

My three children, Sarah, Sam, and David, have been incredibly understanding as my career took us to different cities, and placed pressures on the amount of time I could spend with them.

I am pleased also to acknowledge the presence of their mother, Jane Arscott, Arts ‘81, PhD '93, and her early support of my career since we were graduate students.

Most of all, I want to thank my lovely and amazing wife Julie, my partner in the journey ahead. As one principal emeritus recently observed, this is a job for two people!

I want to speak about Queen's history (I am a historian after all!), and about the future.

Let me focus on the three words that form my title, and which were explored at our symposium earlier this afternoon: Wisdom, Knowledge and Imagination.

The first two have a long-standing association with Queen's; they are in the university motto, Sapientia et doctrina stabilitas.

Doctrina can be translated as education, instruction, learning, or even science. I take it, as others have, to mean knowledge in the broadest sense: inherited knowledge, tradition -- as well as things yet unknown.

Universities, as we all recognize, are engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, for its own sake and for application. And universities have always seen themselves as nurturing wisdom, knowledge's necessary companion.

Queen's has performed well on both fronts.

From very early days, when research and publication were added to its teaching mission, through great expansion in the 1950s and 60s, to today's CFI grants, the Tri-council, and contract research, Queen's has generated new knowledge.

Through the values we instil in our students, including a commitment to community...through publications such as Queen's Quarterly...through our deep and lasting impact on the Canadian public service, having educated ministers, deputy ministers, and supreme court justices...through those alumni who contribute to building their communities and improving the lives of their fellow citizens, Queen's has promoted wisdom across our country and around the world.

This proud history should be celebrated. We are seven years away from our 175th anniversary, a milestone for any university, especially in this young country. To mark this date, and to ensure our history is kept up to date, I am pleased to announce that we are pursuing donor funding in order to commission volume 3 of the Queen's History, so that it may be published by 2016.

But how can one bridge what sometimes seems a gap between knowledge and wisdom, between discovering new things and technologies, and using them creatively to maximum benefit?

In his book The Truth about Stories, aboriginal author Thomas King writes "Don't show them your mind. Show them your imagination."

The word "imagination" is not in our motto, but I suggest it is the third point on a Queen's triangle, with wisdom and knowledge.

Imagination stirs the minds of our writers and composers, our artists and poets, such as novelist and activist Jeannette Armstrong, who today accepts an honorary doctorate.

But imagination plays the same role in medical research, in innovations in engineering and science, and in education, law and business.

Every new discovery, every fact mastered, every truth refined, every technique improved, carries with it not only a meaning for today, but a potential to generate further knowledge and deeper wisdom.

The roads ahead from today's discoveries can take many directions. Imagination will help us find our way along, even if we hit the dead ends that must nonetheless be mapped.

Our imagination will continue to open up new paths to explore.

As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard observed, "One cannot study what one has not first dreamed about."

An Arapoho proverb puts it this way: "If we wonder often, the gift of knowledge will come."

In all we do, I believe we must practice what was labelled in the nineteenth century "disciplined intelligence." However, today's problems are remarkably undisciplined. They are unruly.

Many are old-poverty, injustice and intolerance, domestic violence.

Others are newer, such as the urgent need to find sustainable and clean energy to drive our economy without endangering our planet. This latter problem is one that Queen's is in a unique position to help solve with our Green Science initiatives and research into fuel cells.

But finding answers must begin with discussions outside our usual departmental boundaries and beyond our comfort zones.

We have some excellent examples in our centres and institutes of interdisciplinary research.

I submit we must apply that same inclusiveness of enquiry to our teaching.

If we wish to stay at the forefront of the knowledge generation, it will be essential that we do better at bridging departmental and faculty boundaries.

It will similarly be crucial that we balance our commitment to original scientific research, both pure and applied, with an equal commitment to the human spirit. We must nurture our left and right brains, as one of today's honorary degree recipients, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor urges in her moving book, My Stroke of Insight.

It is worth noting that Albert Einstein was also a skilled concert violinist. After giving a concert in a small German town, the local critic, unaware of the physicist's other achievements, wrote: "Einstein plays well, but his worldwide fame is undeserved. There are many violinists...[who are] just as good."

The lesson here, I think, is that our students will do best when exposed to both the arts and the sciences.

Universities, of course, live not only in the realm of ideas, but in the material world of budgets, buildings, funding and accountability. They are multi-million-dollar businesses, but they are not run entirely like businesses. We engage in the valued process of collegial decision-making, slow and cumbersome as it may sometimes seem, even to us.

One former colleague tells this joke:

"How many academics does it take to change a light bulb?"
"What do you mean, Change?"

There is some truth in this.

Change, as Samuel Johnson once said, is seldom convenient, even when made for the better. Moreover, it is natural that we value what we have, and what we have inherited.

But a longer perspective suggests that change has in fact occurred.

This university is quite different than it was when I arrived in 1976, and the Queen's of that time, in turn, was not the Queen's of the 40s, 50s and 60s, when Registrar Jean Royce knew every student by name. Royce's university was not that of George Grant, just as his university was not the 18th century Scottish model on which Queen's was founded.

The social and fiscal context of what we do has also evolved. We can no longer count on government funding, or tuition, to cover the full costs of what we do. We must turn to our alumni and benefactors to enable us to maintain our reputation for excellence.

And we must find ways to offer the Queen's experience in a much more difficult financial environment. This will require flexibility, creativity, and innovation. It will require, again, imagination.

How can we remain true to our identity while adapting to a world of seemingly endless change?

First, we must let Queen's be Queen's.

This is one of Canada's most venerable and respected universities. I am not entirely sure we can completely define our uniqueness, but we are what we are.

We also need to play to our strengths.

To do that, we need to understand them. Aristotelian philosophers talked about an object's essence and its "accidents" -- those more ephemeral features. We need to have some discussion about what is essence, and what is accident; what must be preserved and strengthened, and what, however comfortable it may be, must be given up, or given lower priority.

These are never easy decisions. But for Queen's to thrive, it must adapt. Queen's must change if it wishes to remain the same.

What should we become?

Crises, India's prime minister Nehru once said, force us to think.

An installation is commonly a time when a new university head enunciates a vision. Yet I do not think one person, even an alumnus, can do this without encountering cynicism and some push-back.

So, while I do hold strong beliefs about Queen's place in the world, we need dialogue rather than decree, an organic and structured process rather than proposals created ex nihilo, or written from an administrator's desk.

I have therefore proposed that we engage in a ground-level-up process of academic discussion and planning, and within a year, we create a concise and clear academic plan. The plan will guide us in decisions about how to allocate our scarce resources and will help us make those inevitable tough choices. We will launch this process in January with clear timelines-consultation and discussion must be thorough, but will not continue ad infinitum.

One value we must never lose sight of is our community-mindedness. Queen's has an intimate relationship with Kingston, and our fates are intertwined. I am gratified by the commitment to community shown by thousands of our students who volunteer every year with local organizations that support youth, seniors, and newcomers, and with groups that promote healthy living, literacy, and environmentalism, just to name a few important causes.

Queen's similarly has a significant role to play in the province; we are an economic driver in eastern Ontario and we help improve the lives of thousands through education.

Queen's has always, too, been a national university. Our students come from one end of the country to the other, which is illustrated by our vigorous alumni networks.

George Grant realized that a university must play a role in society, and cannot expect public support if it does not give back. Those of us who work in the academy -- faculty and staff -- have chosen a life of the mind, certainly, but also a life of public service.

While we are properly at arm's length from government, and must be left to pursue wisdom and knowledge where our imagination leads us, we are a public institution; we exist to provide our nation with the next generation of informed, educated and thoughtful citizens, and to raise the condition of humanity at home and abroad through active engagement.

If we are going to serve society, we should also be reflective of it.

Just as Queen's welcomed British North America's first known black student, Robert Sutherland, in 1849, and Alfred Bader, a Jew, in 1941; just as Principal Wallace took an unpopular stand in defending the rights of Professor Israel Halperin, a victim of Cold War prejudice and suspicion, so must we ensure that Queen's today is a welcoming and inclusive place for all.

I recommit Queen's here, under my tenure as Principal, to a proactive policy to increase our representation of the underrepresented, from new immigrant populations, to those with physical disabilities, those with different sexual identities, and our aboriginal peoples to whom we owe so much and have historically given so little.

Finally, Queen's lives in the wider world.

While we should be open to qualified students from all countries, we should make strategic choices, as we strive to increase international enrolment, and research collaborations.

Similarly, while our Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle in England is a huge success, our students need to have access to a wider array of international study opportunities, at the graduate and undergraduate level.

Queen's stands at a crossroads.

As we approach our 175th anniversary, we should look back to our distinguished past and take encouragement and inspiration. However, we must not be limited by its horizons.

Just as we are grateful for the vision of our predecessors, I hope that at our 250th anniversary, our successors will look back with similar gratitude, on the bold departures we took.

Tradition is about growth and cumulative development, not about stagnation and complacency. Our history illustrates countless innovations that now make up our traditions.

Let us keeping adding to the old with the new.

Please join with me in imagining the Queen's of the future.

Thank you

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000