Some thoughts on the new academic plan, and the Queen’s Senate

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Tuesday, November 22 was a great day for Queen’s. First and most obviously, almost two years of discussion, documents, drafts, consultations, web-postings, petitions, town halls and hallway conversations culminated in the University Senate’s vote on the Academic Plan.

There was, once again, constructive debate . Specifically, a significant amendment to the Academic Planning Task Force’s motion was developed collaboratively by two Senators, introduced on the floor, debated, and then adopted. After its passage, the amended motion to adopt the Academic Plan was quickly passed, unanimously, and the APTF was discharged with the thanks of the chair and of Senate.

That the plan was not merely passed, but adopted by a vote of 52-0, speaks volumes about the ability of the community to work through differences, have debates, make compromises, and–even in very tough financial times–keep our collective eyes on the academic ball.

Is the Plan perfect? Of course not. Ten more years of debate would not make it so. Does it provide answers or guideposts to every question that will come up, or every new circumstance in which we will find ourselves? Also no.

What it does do is to identify, at a critical juncture in our history, some important principles that we share institutionally and externally. It does not bind deans, faculties or departments to particular courses of action, or to particular budgetary decisions. It will provide guidance to the alignment of scarce resources, but it is emphatically not, and never has been, a ‘cost-cutting measure’. It will certainly help me in articulating to our external stakeholders (alumni, government, industry and donors) what Queen’s is about, and the unanimity of the vote (accepting that there is still much that needs to be worked through) is already a powerful signal in that regard, and one that I happily relayed to our Campaign Cabinet (the distinguished volunteers who will lead our fundraising efforts) yesterday at a meeting in Toronto.

The Plan will be of enormous use to Provost Harrison, the Vice-Principals and the Deans as they work with faculties and departments to implement some of the values articulated in the Plan. But at the end of the day, the Plan should not be made into more than it is. It is a map or, as I said in Senate, a set of stars, by which we can sail the ship called Queen’s. There will be rocks, reefs winds, islands and unanticipated obstacles along the way, and doubtless some tempting harbours that we may wish to pass by. We will continually need  to tack and adjust course to deal with these as they emerge.

In its final deliberations, Senate expressed the clear view that a single plan could not do everything, and that the process of the past year has worked sufficiently well to be replicated in some way to deal with other issues. We have yet to see how that will unfold, but it is encouraging to see that there is still, after two years, appetite for such discussions.

This leads me to the second reason why Nov. 22 was a great day for Queen’s. Again, it has to do with things that happened in Senate.

There were other features of Tuesday’s meeting that have caused me to reflect on the excellence of this institution and its people. First is the civil debate over the Plan and several other important issues. I must admit that when I arrived at Queen’s 2009 I was told repeatedly that Senate had been rather quiet for many years, and hadn’t tackled very many substantive issues. I cannot comment on the accuracy of that statement, but even if it were true at some point in the past, it certainly isn’t now. We have had a series of animated Senate meetings, including a couple which have gone into ‘extra innings’. And, yes, there have been some times in which things did not go exactly the way in which I, as chair, or the proponents of particular measures, had anticipated or hoped. There will be again. Such is the power of a functional university Senate over academic matters in a healthy model of shared governance.

The second feature of Tuesday’s Senate that I found quite remarkable was the presence of many guests, not least a number of students in the BFA program. These students obviously care very deeply about the future of their program, and their respectful presence in the meeting, within the rules of Senate, was impressive (as indeed was some of the art which they brought with them). I offer no comment on the decisions made about that program, which properly rest with the Faculty of Arts and Science in the first instance; rather, my comment is intended to draw attention to the fact that it is possible to engage politically within the conventions of governance and without disruption of the conduct of Senate’s business. That the business of the meeting was also being widely live-reported via twitter, and many guests applied for the limited number of guest slots, indicates a strong interest on the part of students, staff and faculty in the future of the university.

It was milestone day for Queen’s, and an important day for academic governance. I left the meeting very proud of our university.

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