Celebrating a Decade of Visionary Leadership

As Queen’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor Daniel Woolf prepares to step down from his post at the end of June, the Queen’s campus community has been reflecting on and celebrating the legacy he’s crafted during 10 years at the helm of the university. During a recent tribute concert staged in his honour, family, friends, colleagues, students, and members of the Kingston community gathered to share with him their appreciation, and witness the unveiling of his official portrait and a tribute video dedicated to his years of service.

Prior to the evening’s performance by world-renowned jazz vocalist Claire Martin, Principal Woolf shared thoughts on his life, career, and decision to move into administration, as well as the value of education, and the role of Queen’s — and universities more broadly — in providing space for the free of exchange of ideas and debate.

Read a slightly-abridged transcript of Principal Woolf’s remarks:

I’m often asked why I took on this job, or indeed why I wandered into administration in the first place over 20 years ago, at what should have been the height of my scholarly career. My late mother, a scholar of 20th century literature, had her doubts about the wisdom of this move and gave me as a cautionary tale the autobiography of the late Ernest Sirluck, who confessed in that book that an administrative turn had destroyed his once-promising career as a 17thcentury literature scholar. (Hmm: Jewish, from Winnipeg, and works on the 17th century — how subtle, mum!). My late father was a bit more optimistic, and happily, both had come round within a few years to see that administrative service could be useful, and that it was not necessarily the death knell of one’s scholarly life.

I had tired of the endless complaints in my then union regarding administration, and believed not so much that I could do better, but that if I were going to gripe and grumble (which as a faculty member I could do as well as the next person), I had at least a duty to try to do these jobs myself. It was intended as a short-term gig at the same institution. I could not have imagined it would have led all the time from my late 30s to my early 60s, and to the principalship of my alma mater.

Over the years, I have had further occasion to reflect many times on the purpose and use of administration, and, why it is worth doing. The university is among the oldest institutions in the world. Only the papacy and Britain’s monarchy have had a longer continuous existence, at least within the Eurosphere.

I believe that Education matters, whether it be early childhood, K to 12, community college, or university. It matters whether it is in the liberal arts or the professions. It matters whether it is in an applied field or undertaken purely for the sake of developing skills of thought and reflection. Universities are not the only custodians and transmitters of knowledge, but for at least the past two centuries of their existence they have uniquely combined the centuries-long function of instruction in inherited knowledge with the generation of new knowledge, across the widest range of fields, from literature to engineering, from music to psychology, from social sciences to life and natural sciences. Perhaps above all, we encourage people to think independently.

That last mission is perhaps the most apposite at this time of great danger to the planet and to the values of liberal democracy. A decade ago, at the outset of my time as Principal, I heard a veteran American university president complain about the lack of ‘nuance’ in public sphere discussions, and indeed of hostility toward it. That comment has stuck with me through my career as Principal, and 10 years on, the situation is, if anything, worse. In an era of social media (of which I myself have made great use), of extraordinary politicization, of extreme polarization of views, it is hard to find consensus on issues of common importance to humanity, whether we are talking about climate change, public services, trade policy, gender, ethnic, racial and other forms of inequality, or even so basic an issue as freedom of speech. I personally resist the politics of division and polarization, and I even more strongly reject the culture of abuse, extremity, and ad hominem attack that has suffused society in recent years, fanned by social media, and which, sadly, has crept into university discussions — not just at Queen’s or even especially at Queen’s. To quote the great 17th century historian R.H. Tawney, who died over half a century ago, and who was the doctoral supervisor of my own doctoral supervisor, ‘An erring colleague is not an Amalekite, to be smitten hip and thigh’.

My point is that apart from its role as a centre for teaching and preparation for careers and citizenship, and its role in fundamental and applied research, the university can and should be a neutral site for exchange of views, tough but not abusive discussions, and for the elucidation of intellectual subtlety and nuance, for working through problems rather than rigorously holding fast to an ideological position whether that be from the right or the left. Ideology is fine: it is part of debate and we all have our personal beliefs and convictions about the gap between the country, or the world, or the university, as it is, and is it might be. But these need to be starting points for discussion, not end points. If we at the university cannot provide a rational space — “a safe space” to use the expression so often favoured by some of our students, who use it in a different sense than I understand—for exchange of ideas and debate, then heaven help the country and the planet, because we aren’t finding much of it elsewhere.

Our own beloved Queen’s has long played a role in teaching, research, and public discourse. We are a great university, but not a perfect university. We have made past mistakes, and we should own up to them, as for instance in our recent apology for the despicable 1918 decision to expel black medical students on entirely specious and self-serving grounds. But I also believe we can learn from our past, and that we need to own it, not bury it. In that way, we can continue to grow and prosper, and remain relevant to society. I’ve also often said, and will repeat here, that while we need to honour our traditions, we must not maintain all of them, all the time. Traditions are time-bound creations, some of which are adaptable, and others of which must be terminated when they cease to reflect the values of society at large. I hope with all of the changes of the past ten years that I have provided due respect for tradition but helped liberate us from some of the shackles with which it can fetter us.

Let me conclude by saying that it has been the honour and the privilege of a lifetime to serve as Principal of this great university. Like Cincinnatus of old (that’s my classics courses at work in case you wondered), I will be taking up my intellectual plough again as a professor in the near future, and I hope to continue to contribute in that role for a few years yet. Thank you all for listening, and for your own commitment to our common mission. Cha Gheill! 

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