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Queen's University
 

University Council, May 1, 2009

Dr. Daniel Woolf's remarks to University Council

You know, the last time I was in this room, it was to take History 260, a Canadian History survey course. The furniture wasn't nearly as nice....

This has been I think a really energizing day. I actually have known about University Council for a very, very long time. I must admit that I never entirely understood what it was. Though I've been at many other places, I believe it is actually a unique institution in post-secondary education in Canada. It goes back a very long way. We are a little bit short of our 170th anniversary and this is, I think the Chancellor said, the 134th meeting of Council, so that is a very, very long time for any body. The UN hasn't been around that long, the Canadian Parliament has only been around barely that long. So this has been extraordinarily educational for me, both as to what Council actually does, and what I think Council could do. I'll come back to governance in a moment, but I think that the taskforce, workgroup, or working committee that has just been formed by your motion will have excellent ideas for us in the course of the year.

The previous speakers this afternoon have done an excellent job of reporting back on all the major sub-groups so I'll try not to reiterate what Rod, and Patrick and Bill have so eloquently reported from all the groups. I didn't get to quite all of them, but I think I got to about a half dozen and I must say it was with a little bit of nervousness that I crept late into a room and saw both the person who had been the Principal when I was here as an undergrad and my then-Dean, sitting here in the room.

I'd like to talk about eight things. (The Chancellor has commented on a previous occasion that I tend to do things in groups of eight--it must be from having spent time in China). These are not separate items. To me they all seem intimately related, and they all come down, I think, in the end, to the fact that we're standing here in 2009 at a very, very critical juncture in the University's history, in our country's history, and indeed in the way the world is unfolding, economically, socially, and in other ways. So although I've separated these out into different categories, I do think they're related and the problem is not so much identifying them as teasing out precise ways in which they are related and what we can do -- How we can bottle that euphoria that I keep hearing about this afternoon - I think that's an accurate word to describe the mood - and harness it into some constructive solutions for some of the situations we face.

Finance and Budget

So number one, most obviously--and Principal Williams singled this out in his report this morning--is finance and budget. That is the big elephant in the room. (I won't talk about big bad Woolfs if you don't mind). It is a problem. There are clear markers in those lines that the Principal had up on the screen that show that the way we are doing business is simply not sustainable in the way we have done it for some time. I don't think anyone in this room will dispute that. There is clearly also no single silver bullet that is going to fix those issues. I heard some great ideas this afternoon: opening a Queen's store, satellite campuses, a revenue generation officer... All of these I think are incredibly worthy ideas. Some may get more traction than others. The point is that one of them alone is not going to fix it. We're not going to fix Queen's deficit problem by selling more t-shirts. It's got to be a combination of things.

I also think that we ought not to fixate purely on the negative side of the financial challenges. That does not mean we should not take them seriously, but I think we should focus also on the opportunity that they present for us to re-think ourselves. This is not a first for Queen's University. In the course of preparing for that marathon known as the interviews by the Principal Selection Committee, I did a fair bit of reading up on my undergraduate institution to refresh my memory on its history over the last 160-odd years, and I was surprised to discover that we have been in very similar jams before. A few of you have heard me on this issue already. In the 1860's, there was a terrible bank failure. Queen's had put a lot of its money into one particular bank that went soft in a hurry. We were on the brink of being gobbled up by that unmentionable place in a larger city west of here, one that's only three hours by car from Kingston. We got through that. We then had several years of expansion under Principal Grant and then we ran into another problem in World War I, followed by the Depression. Throughout all of this, there were demographic ups, demographic downs, and I suggest that if you actually look at the structure of the University and the curriculum, I think you will see that in one sense this is exactly the same Queen's University that we had 167 years ago in that we have a charter, we have a bicameral structure of government. In some ways as Dean Saunders said, Queen's is almost tri-cameral given the role of this Council. But in other very important ways you could take any of our former Principals from 50-70-90-100 years ago, and while they would know they were in Kingston, and they would recognize a few of the buildings, I think they would be very hard pressed to say that this is exactly the same University that they were used to. It's been 33 years since I was here as a first year student and I don't think it's the same place, and that is appropriate. The university, not this one, but universities in general, has been with us for around eight centuries. Few institutions in the world can claim that level of longevity, and I would suggest that the reason Universities are still around is not because they have remained the same, but precisely because they have adapted, they have changed, they have met the changing expectations of their clientele, of those who pay the bills, of society.

Imagine back in the 16th century: a similar conversation in Oxford or Cambridge about curriculum reform. "Well, you know, I'm really concerned about quality, I mean the printed book stuff is all very well, but it's kind of a fad, and it's going to go away, and by the way I'm not really very keen on having actual corpses to dissect in our medical school. I think you can get everything you need out of Galen's treatise on anatomy." There have been change in universities' curricula, in structure, size and composition, in who actually attends them, and that is why we are here; that is why there are many more universities than there were in the past; and that is why we are a much more accessible institution than in the past. That's why, too, I suggest that we will still be around in a couple of hundred years. What does it take, somebody once asked, to make a great university? The answer: about 300 years. We're not quite there yet. I do think we can be a great one. Certainly we're a great one in the Canadian context. I believe we have gained recognition in the international context as well but that's another point where we need more work.

Uniqueness

I'm conscious of the time so I will try to move this along. I've talked about finances. Point number two is our uniqueness. What is the core of our mission? What is our core identity? That gets back again to what we throw out and what we keep. I have heard several times today - and I think it is absolutely spot-on - that one of our unique features within the Canadian post-secondary system is our size. I can think of only a couple of other institutions - I've actually been at a couple of them - that actually have our unique combination of a relatively small size with a very undergraduate focused first class education, but within a research intensive environment. I think we have to play that card for all it is worth because very few places in the country and in North America can actually claim that precise combination.

Teaching and Research

Teaching and research are my third point. I was delighted to hear general agreement that these two things are not in opposition. I completely agree with Vice-Principals Rowe and Deane that they form a mutually supportive complementarity that makes the university go round, particularly this university. I don't want to roll that balloon over onto a sharp pin, and let out the euphoria, but although I agree with this, and though many people in the room will agree with this, I suggest that many of our undergraduates will not agree with it. I think they are actually very suspicious of the mantra of teaching and research being mutually supportive. I don't think they need to be and I think some of them are not, but I use a very rigorous social scientific method to test my beliefs on this, i.e., my two children who are at university. That sample of two has a tough time buying this. So if we are going to be serious about the teaching and research mission and how they support each other, we darn well better communicate how that is, how that works, how it aligns, what is in it for the average undergraduate. I heard some wonderful ideas today on how we can do that, so it is certainly possible.

Curriculum Reform

Fourthly, curriculum reform: lots of good ideas here. Patrick [Deane] has circulated his paper. Again I don't think there is a single silver bullet. We don't want to go all distance learning: the campus experience is very much core to the Queen's experience. You walk through these buildings as I have been doing on the last couple of trips, and they just resonate with memories of our time here as students and all those ghosts of the past going back to Gordon, Grant, and beyond. So that campus experience is important, but it does not mean we can't think creatively about supplementing it with other things. Whether it's partial on-line, distance, something like the Business School's National MBA program, let's think out of the box on that one as well. Again, because of the budget crisis, we actually have a golden opportunity that may not come again for awhile.

Governance

Fifthly, the G word, governance: You've heard it, loud and clear. It wasn't the first time I've heard it. When I was here in March, I met with every Dean and Vice-Principal and almost the first thing out of several of their mouths was "you're going to have to deal with some governance issues here." I was surprised. I thought finance and budget would be top of the order bill, but no, it was governance. So, I am absolutely on side with the notion of a study group for this Council. That's an excellent idea. However I also thoroughly agree with the Chancellor that this must be seen as one part of a much, much, bigger governance issue. Because I've heard it from Senate, I've heard it from the Board, I've heard it from students, I've heard it from Deans, so I'm getting the picture: governance is an issue all around. But it must be dealt with holistically so that we have all the pieces fit together.

I had the honour of meeting the daughter and granddaughter-in-law of Principal Mackintosh, our 12th Principal's daughter. One of his lines that I've heard again and again over the last several months is his explication of what the role of a Principal is, or at least what one role of the Principal is. He described it as the "narrow isthmus between the Board and the Senate." I think that was actually an accurate description for his time. I am not sure however that in the 21st century, with a much more complicated, complex, and diverse University than existed in Bill Mackintosh's day 50 years ago, that any Principal can provide adequate linkage on his or her own between those two bodies, even with the aid of something like University Council. So I very much welcome the idea of a full-scale governance review across the institution and one of my commitments to you for next year is not that we will have all those problems solved, because it is going to take some time - we do not want to rush into a reform of something that's been around for a long time - but I will commit that we will have some kind of task force or working group thoroughly involving the committee that Council has just empanelled but also, as it must, involving Senate and the Board.

Alumni

Sixth, we need to mobilize our Alumni. I am reminded of the story about the building right next to us, Grant Hall. Some of you will have heard this story also. Grant Hall was supposed to have been called Frontenac Hall, because the farmers of Frontenac County were going to pay for it. And round about 1900, Principal George Grant, one of our greatest Principals, took a very unpopular position on the issue of temperance. We've heard a lot of Presbyterian jokes today. Principal Grant was ahead of his time in being opposed to strict temperance. The Frontenac County farmers objected; they pulled their support. Grant was almost in despair. We had this plan for a shovel-ready, as we call it now, building, and the money had disappeared...Sound a little familiar? The alumni and the students came to the rescue and thus was Grant Hall built and named for Grant who unfortunately did not live to see its completion. So I absolutely agree that if we have a single greatest asset at this University that I have not seen at any of the other six post-secondary institutions that I've been at, it is absolutely the strength and commitment of our Alumni. And that needs to be mobilized: it needs to be mobilized now and fast, and you all have a crucial role ... (phone ringing) and maybe that's a donor right there. You all have a crucial role in that right now.

Advancement

That leads me to another point which is that I think the era when the fundraising and the advancement of the University was solely the responsibility of the Principal, or even the Principal and the Vice-Principal of Advancement -- that era, folks, is gone. Advancement of this University is my business, it's Sean Conway's business, it's Bill Young's business, it's certainly the Chancellor's business, but I suggest ladies and gentleman that it is also your business. It is the business of every faculty member. It is the business of every staff member, it is the business of every student, because you cannot claim that this is your university and have that kind of share-holder ownership in it unless you are prepared to get out there, and as somebody said this morning, not just talk to government about how important as it is, but talk to the people who elect the government. Tell them about what you do in your research. Tell them, if you're an alumnus or alumna, what your education meant to you and why they should support it. Governments have a lot of draws on the treasury. They're not interested in us going there and saying "Minister, I need this, I need this, I need this." They're interested in hearing what we can do for them, what we can do for the people of Ontario and Canada. So it has to be a two-way conversation whether it's us or the administration talking to Deputy Ministers and Ministers or you all talking to your neighbour over the fence about why post-secondary education is important--why our government should support it. It's absolutely critical and we're not going to get there without your help. I think the change in communications style in the last six months, the positive news coming out of the University every day, has just been remarkable. We need more of it, very aggressively. This is the University we have every reason to be proud of and when you've got it, you flaunt it.

International

Finally, and I haven't put these in any particular order, the international subject has come up. That covers a lot of things. We do sit in Kingston, a relatively small town midway between Montreal and Toronto, but it's within a province and a country and a much larger world that has actually become, in my time as an adult, a very much smaller world. It is no longer possible for students to spend their entire time cloistered. (Remember that old Queen's movie, The Academic Cloister from the 70's?) Cloistered here without experience of other cultures, it's not enough for our researcher to operate purely within a Canadian context. We've seen great benefits of international research collaboration. There is a great big tidal wave bearing down on us that Patrick Deane pointed out to us earlier this afternoon. That is the Bologna process. We want international students. We want our students to be able to go abroad. That is a process we have to get with - I come back to curriculum reform again - or we are going to get trampled underfoot. It's that important. That process is far along so we need to take it very, very seriously.

So, I've tried not to be very prescriptive here today because I haven't even started the job yet, and there is a lot more I have to learn. But, I have certainly in the course of my last few visits gotten a much more finely-grained sense of what's going on here, what the challenges are, what the opportunities are. Let's keep this ship not just afloat, but going forward. It is, again to use a metaphor of which I'm very fond, the same shaped sort of ship that it was a 100 years ago or 50 years ago, but there are lots of different planks, it's been reconstructed several times, and we're going to continue to reconstruct it. I have found this Council today enormously informative, enormously exciting. I look forward very much to seeing you again in a year and I thank you and my colleagues here for the invitation to come back to my alma mater. I've checked to see that I haven't got any essay that I didn't hand in on time or overdue library books, so thank you very much again for the opportunity to come back as your next Principal.

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