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Queen's University

Principal Woolf’s Report to University Council

May 5, 2012

Speaking notes

Check against delivery

Today I will not be talking about the events of the previous year. The Provost will be doing that.

Instead, I will be sharing some challenges we will be facing and some strategies we will need to consider, to make the future of Queen’s as bright as its past.  The challenges are found in the areas of:  government support, new student demographics and the impact of technology, today and in the future.  They all have to be tackled so that Queen’s has a successful plan to thrive in the future and yet still stay true to our values and strengths.

Let’s start with some of the more obvious challenges.

First, funding.

As you know, less than 50% of our operating funding comes from the provincial government.  (Note that this is down from 75% in the 1990’s.) The Drummond report (note that Don is a Fellow here in Policy Studies) has shown in excruciating detail that the province is living beyond its means. So, it is very unlikely that the PSE sector will see any large infusions of cash in the next few years.  The global economy is still on shaky ground.   Even further shocks are possible. 

So, we have to assume that what we have now is likely to be as good as it gets in terms of the public purse and that we are continuing on the 20 year trend of diminishing public support.

Then there’s the future of research support from the federal government. 

In the short term, support of basic research funding has been maintained and the Federal Indirect Costs program has been protected. However, other areas have seen significant cuts. There are also indications that we will see an increasing focus on funding targeted research designed to enhance innovation and on industry/university partnerships.  While Queen’s researchers continue to outperform their peers at other universities in obtaining funding, this is becoming increasingly difficult.

So, in the near future we will need to work very hard if we want to take advantage of what will be on offer in terms of funding, while at the same time continuing to provide support for non-targeted ‘pure’ research. 

How about the labour market?  Government is concerned that there’s an undersupply of  workers with the proper qualifications - like the STEM disciplines:  Science, technology, engineering, math. There are also signals that more employers are seeking ready trained employees, who come to them with an existing skills set. 

But there is continuing demand for universities to produce ‘general purpose’ thinkers who can also write well.

So, we need to know our product, or to put this in less commercial terms, we need to know what universities, especially Queen’s, can provide that no one else can.

All these issues are all well-publicized.  But there are some others that we also need keep our eyes on, even if they’re not as obvious.  Here are a few: first, STATSCAN data on the expected changes in the 19-29 age group in Canada show the 19-29 age group peaking in 2012-13 and then falling until around 2030.  This is true nationally, and it’s especially true in some parts of the country, like the Atlantic Provinces.  The decrease is smaller in Ontario, but it’s still there.

Well, you may say, that’s not so bad then.  But that ignores an important fact: only 4% of our students come from the local area. A significant majority come from the GTA, where  other Canadian universities will be doing all they can to keep students in their region. Convincing those students to come here will be tougher.  So, we may be facing a flattening rather than a sharply growing market of potential domestic students and we need to get out and recruit better, and in some newer markets.  Many of our new students will be from new immigrant families. Are we confident that these children will want to move outside their home environment, and come to Kingston ?  Will the model of ‘going away to school’ remain vibrant? 

So, if domestic enrollments are lower, international students become key. We will increasingly depend on them. 

We’ve got to become players on the world stage.

There is also another demographic issue that should concern us. 

Like many of our peers, we have an increasingly aging professoriate. And the resources to replace departing faculty members are harder to find.   Unless we let our student numbers also fall, with the associated loss of tuition revenue, something we cannot afford to do, our faculty-student ratio will worsen.  We do need to look at alternative forms of teaching as our academic plan suggests, which are more self-directed and make use of technology.  Also, in terms of research, size does matter. We’ve got to find a way to support faculty renewal, but also to be strategic about it. 

Over the past 20 years or so, we have seen a huge shift in the storage and transmission of information.  Some companies, like Amazon, have thrived in this environment. Some others, like Kodak, have failed. What does this teach us? 

There is no doubt that the internet and social media are here to stay, even if the players change. It is no good ranting about ‘disruption’ in higher education, and griping about virtual ‘barbarians at the gate’: We’ve got to find ways that universities can intelligently use technology to provide teaching and learning that is of the greatest value to our students, now and in the future.  The mix of models is likely to become richer.

A recent example is the MITx model, where a selection of MIT courses are offered online for a small fee and where successful completion gives rise to a certificate, not a degree from MIT, but a tangible recognition. 

Similarly, some industries are promoting the notions of ‘badges’: recognitions of particular skill sets, not as all-embracing as a degree, but more highly focused.  Universities must provide a set of attractive and valuable options to learners, both domestic and international.

The final challenge concerns the tendency for graduates to use universities to get targeted training for specific job skills.  It’s what Saint Lawrence College here in Kingston calls ‘Fast Track’ programs.

Recent books by people like Clark, Moran, Skolnik and Trick claim that the current 40% teaching/40% research/20% service/ model is unsustainable and should be replaced by one with a larger proportion of ‘teaching only’ faculty positions.  This approach brings with it two questions:  for our students, what is the appropriate balance of broad general skills like critical thinking, imaginative problem-solving, speaking and writing on the one hand and discipline-specific knowledge and skills on the other hand? And for our faculty members, how can we provide the optimum environment to support both teaching and research?

The Third Juncture

So, where are we?  I believe that, together, the factors I have enumerated place us at a turning point.  I am calling it a Third Juncture.

Turning points like this have occurred at least twice before in our history. 

In the first case, Principal Grant took what was then a small, local college at risk of being absorbed by one of its neighbouring institutions.  And he turned it into a national university, drawing students from across the nation and producing graduates who played a central role in the growth of Canada. 

In the second case, under Principals Mackintosh, Corry, Deutsch  and their successors, Queen’s became not just an undergraduate university, but added graduate studies and a strong research dimension.

This third juncture we now find ourselves at is the product of the factors I have just described:  decreasing government support, accompanied by increasing oversight, greater competition for students, and the changing learning expectations of our students.  In fact, all of these factors are intertwined.

Specifically, they all point to the fact that Queen’s needs fundamentally to change its point of view, its perspective on its place in the world. 

We need now to measure ourselves against the World. 

Here are some of the reasons why: as I noted earlier, many of our future students will increasingly be of international origin r extraction. How will we make them want to choose Queen’s? Our graduates will be called upon to succeed on a world stage; so we owe them an international experience before they graduate, either by travel to another university abroad or through education at Queen’s.  We’ve got to give our students the tools to be innovative on the global scale.

Also, let’s not overlook the fact that information technology will allow Queen’s to reach all four corners of the world, in both teaching and research, both by what we can provide to the world and by what the world can provide us.

This is the third juncture: the confluence of demographics, technology and culture. Just as the Queen’s of Grant’s time succeeded in becoming a national institution, so we must now become an international institution.

In particular, we will need four things:

First, like a ship, we need a keel in order to stay on course in choppy seas. We can’t waver with every shift in the winds blowing from Toronto or Ottawa. Our core values are that keel. We cannot be all things to all people. Let us choose those things where we can be excellent.

Second, we can’t sit still in the water: we need some wind in our sails. The current financial troubles risk leaving us all becalmed.  We’ve started, but we’ve got to bring in additional revenues.

Third, even if we’re underway, it won’t be of much use unless we have a clear compass heading. Our planning exercises have now begun to chart that course. They include the now-completed Academic Plan, the new Research Plan which will go to Senate for approval in May, enrollment-capital planning that is now underway, and international planning which is also beginning. 

Finally, like a ship, we need a rudder to make the necessary course corrections.  The new budget model that the Provost will discuss in a few minutes is designed to give us a firmer hand on that rudder.

I will talk briefly about each of these in turn.

Our core values

I see several core values that we need to constantly reaffirm:

First, we are a ‘balanced academy’.  That means that we provide both a first-class learning experience AND a strong research profile.  There are a few like us, no more than a handful in Ontario, which aspire to both strengths.  They are our natural peers and our natural competitors. We also have peers in other parts of the world who share these values.  Queen’s was one of the founding members of the Matariki Network: universities of medium size where the goal is to be a balanced academy.

Second, Queen’s has always defined itself by its residential character.  We are a place where the academic and social experience is 24/7, either in residence, in labs or libraries, or in the proximity of campus.  We are very successful in this respect.  Many of our peers in Canada tend to be larger than we are but look outside Canada. The Ivy League and some of our peers to the south show that greatness does not necessarily require great size. 

Thirdly, we have a longstanding reputation for excellence.  At the undergraduate level, our entry average (around 88%) is among the highest in Canada.  Our high retention rate is out of all proportion with any of our peers.  In research, our faculty are among the best in Canada. 

Revenue generation

I talked about the need to put wind in our sails.  This can only come from revenue generation. 

Our School of Business has shown the way over the past decade by their creation and expansion of programs like the Executive MBA.  But this sort of development is also occurring in other parts of the campus. Let me illustrate that with two programs recently approved by Senate.

The first targets those in the mining industry who need to deal with local community issues. The Mining Department in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, working with the University of Queensland in Australia, has now set up a program, one of only two in the world that will allow those working in the field to take a Masters level degree based partly on online courses. Some of them are taught by a faculty member in Australia and some by intensive bursts of classroom experience here in Kingston.

The second example is a Masters program in the Faculty of Medicine designed to provide clinicians with a way of evaluating medical risks. This is a first in the world.  As in the case of Mining, some courses will be offered online, others in the classroom.

Those universities which can grasp these opportunities for  programs and courses with imaginative content and delivery will have a huge advantage in supporting all of their other activities.


I believe that our future success will depend on a judicious combination of shared vision and local autonomy. 

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this.  Queen’s School of Business developed a game they  call 15-sticks, which they use in some of their management courses.  Imagine 15 foot-long,  notched sticks which fit together at their notches.  So there is an order in which they are laid down.  Teams are asked to find the best way to assemble the 15 sticks.  They typically begin by finding someone to read off a list of the sticks to be put down.  After some practice, the group manages to complete the task in a couple of minutes.  Being competitive, most  groups usually then ask what the shortest time to completion has been. They are surprised to hear that it’s less than 10 seconds. 

After the usual shocked silence, it sinks in that they’ve been doing something wrong.  After some reflection, most groups discover that they need to optimize their local efficiency. They all know the overall goal (to put down all the sticks in the shortest time) but they now have to ask those who will put down adjacent sticks to work together for speed and efficiency.  After some work, most groups get down to around 10 seconds.

The moral of that story is that we need a shared vision, but we also need shared measures and local autonomy in applying agreed-upon principles.  To continue with the 15 sticks analogy, getting the  community to put down the 15 sticks in the best way requires that we all understand the ‘rules of the game’. 

This is where the Provost’s new budget model comes in. 

To conclude, Queen’s has long distinguished itself by its ability to stay true to its traditions of community, excellence and service.  We’ve got to stay true to those values.  But we would dishonour those who came before us if we failed to seize with enthusiasm and imagination the opportunities before us. 

We can play on an international stage.

We can become a place that others look to for the special experience we can provide, this ‘special sauce’, to quote one of our Deans.

And we can produce very bright people in a supportive community who have an eagerness to reach out and serve the world.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000