When I launched the Principal’s Conversation last fall, my hope was that our university would emerge from the 2019–2020 academic year with a clarified understanding of our identity, our aspirations, and values, and the contribution we wish to make to the world. With an English professor’s honest conviction in the power of language and dialogue, I was confident that by this spring all of those issues would have been brought into focus and the way ahead made clear.
That has happened, although not quite in the manner I envisaged. The Conversation did indeed help this new Principal understand better the preoccupations, vulnerabilities, strengths, hopes, and aspirations of our university community; and by providing a forum in which those things could be articulated and debated, it did, I believe, help the institution better understand itself. The advent of the COVID-19 crisis, however, brought a heightened urgency to all these questions and roughly pushed them from the realm of abstract discussion into real-time action and decision making. What are our values, according to what principles should we act, and how do we matter in the world? Suddenly life had called the question in this debate.
However much our choices and actions during the crisis have been expressive of our values, the project of the Conversation – the articulation of long-term aspirations and a strategy for the university – must still be concluded. But far from being slowed down by the COVID-19 emergency, that process has been accelerated in significant ways. With our local community – indeed all of humanity – in extremis, the university’s mission of service has been underlined: our responsibility through research and teaching to contribute to the good of humanity has been reaffirmed in an uncompromising way.
While Queen’s medical researchers have worked through their national and international networks to contribute to the search for vaccines and treatments for the disease, faculty, students, and staff from all parts of the university have found ways to contribute to the cause, whether by providing, resourcing, or fabricating personal protective equipment, by advising government on policy matters, or by probing the human, social, and cultural dimensions of the crisis. Enlisting the cooperation of physicists in Canada and around the world, Queen’s Nobel Laureate Dr. Art McDonald has created a simple ventilator to assist in widespread treatment of the disease: could one imagine a more forthright acknowledgement of our responsibility for one another emanating from a more rarefied stratum of the academy?
In that project, and in many other dimensions of our response to COVID-19, our alumni have been willing, active, and generous partners. As in the flu pandemic of 1918–1920, the broader Queen’s community has worked for the good of the community beyond our boundaries; and as in those years we have made our facilities available to shelter and sustain frontline workers.
We have been reminded by the COVID-19 emergency that the university exists to answer a noble calling and to discharge the most profound obligation imaginable: to sustain, protect, and advance the good of humanity and the well-being of the planet. Is that a Conversation-stopper? On the contrary, it gives impetus and a clear direction to every one of our future interactions.