From the Principal

Dealing with a challenge very close to home

From The Principal Hero

Photograph by Bernard Clark

Financial challenges in higher education do not usually attract great attention in the national media. Recently, however, Queen’s has found itself much in the news as we have begun the difficult process of rebalancing our budget to take account of the very real fiscal constraints which affect every university in Ontario.

Student tuition was reduced by 10 per cent and then frozen by the provincial government in 2019. Operating grants in Ontario stand at 57 per cent of the Canadian average and have declined by more than 31 per cent in real terms since 2006-7. A corridor system caps undergraduate domestic enrolment so that institutions cannot grow to increase revenues, and after a decision of the federal government in late January, international student numbers will now be reduced across the sector.

A Blue Ribbon Panel appointed by government delivered a report late last year the recommendations of which, if implemented, have the potential to lighten slightly what is otherwise a rather gloomy scenario for Ontario’s universities. But as I write this we have still had no indication of the government’s intentions in this regard. That leaves university communities everywhere having to engage in extremely difficult discussions and to make tough choices that will ensure the continuing quality and health of academic operations without putting their institutions’ futures in jeopardy.

When headlines in a number of media asked whether Queen’s was at risk of closure, I issued a statement in January that was unequivocal: there is no risk that Queen’s in any foreseeable future will close its doors. The university continues to provide for and produce some of the best minds in Canada and that will be its future. The work that is being done right now across campus and at all levels will guarantee that. 

None of that work is easy, however, and I must here take note of the toll that uncertainty and instability takes on every member of our community. Queen’s is a family, and efforts to put the institution on a more sustainable footing are required of – and are affecting – everybody. I am confident, however, that we will be successful as we have always been in addressing challenges of this sort. Our Strategic Framework begins by declaring that “The Queen’s community – our people – will solve the world’s most significant and urgent challenges with their intellectual curiosity, passion to achieve, and commitment to collaborate.” The current funding situation is a challenge very close to home.

One of Queen’s most admired benefactors recently asked me about other challenges we have weathered since our establishment in 1841, and indeed I was able to list quite a few, including the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 and of course its echo a century later in COVID-19. But what came immediately to mind was that moment in 1878 when Queen’s really did face an existential challenge during a broader financial crisis and was saved by the generosity of its first Black graduate, Robert Sutherland. Sutherland had been a successful lawyer for two decades, and on his death left his whole estate – approximately the value of the University’s complete operating budget – to Queen’s.

Even if the scale of the University makes a similar gesture unimaginable today, the lesson of Sutherland’s gift remains true: it is the alumni, students, faculty, and staff of Queen’s who are the strength of the institution and the guarantee of its great future.

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