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A decade at the helm

A decade at the helm

Daniel Woolf wasn’t a party guy as a Queen’s student in the 1970s. And while he often attended Gaels football games, he didn’t play sports himself and he joined few campus clubs. And he certainly didn’t break into song whenever he heard the opening call of the Oil Thigh.

[Photo of Principal Woolf walking with actor Glenn Close]
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Principal Daniel Woolf walks with actor Glenn Close towards Kingston Hall to get ready for convocation, as Julie Gordon-Woolf chats with Queen’s Communications staff. Ms. Close received an honorary degree from Queen’s in 2013 for her advocacy work to address the stigma of mental illness. Student mental health has been a priority for Queen’s during Dr. Woolf’s tenure.

“It is not that I don’t believe in the spirit of Queen’s, the tricolour, the traditions – of course I do,” he says. “But for me, the rigorous but encouraging academic education I received here has always been the most important thing. I have always believed that Queen’s is a great Canadian academic institution and that is why I wanted to return, as principal.”

An introvert who likes to retreat to his country home and his cats, Dr. Woolf has spent the past 10 years at the helm of Queen’s. At the end of June, he’ll step down as principal, making way for Patrick Deane, current president of McMaster University and a former vice-principal (academic) of Queen’s. During much of the past decade, Dr. Woolf, a professor of history and historiography, has put his inner introvert to the side. He has travelled relentlessly, both in Canada and internationally. He has delivered countless speeches and made appearances at as many campus and out-of-town events as he possibly could. And he has made significant headway on several fronts on campus.

“I knew it was not going to be an easy job,” says Dr. Woolf regarding the substantial challenges facing the university when he assumed the principalship in 2009. These included strained labour relations, difficult community relations (street parties pushed former principal Tom Williams to cancel Homecoming), a significant deficit, and less than effective governance and administrative structures.

“My wife Julie and I had joked for some time that becoming principal of Queen’s would be the ideal, late-career job for me, so when the position came open, and then when I was ultimately named the successful candidate, I have to say, it was one of the greatest thrills of my life,” he says.

But, while there was no question he would accept his dream job, there was some trepidation.

“There was a certain amount of, ‘Wow! I am going to be the principal of Queen’s!’ coupled with ‘Ack! I am going to be...the principal…of Queen’s!” says Dr. Woolf with a mock grimace as he remembers thinking about the daunting responsibilities of this new role.

But caution aside, Daniel Woolf did have a vision for Queen’s and what he wanted to do as its principal. “I thought that Queen’s needed to preserve what was necessary in order to differentiate it from other institutions, but I believed, and still do, that Queen’s did not need to preserve everything,” he says. “It also needed to modernize and make space for new and improved traditions.”

The plan to modernize Queen’s took shape in different ways. He knew one of his first priorities would be to redesign the vice-principal (academic) role to include provostial duties. Compared to other universities, Queen’s came late to having a provost, and it was clear to Dr. Woolf that the role needed to be both chief academic officer as well as chief operating officer. With the principal travelling a great deal, meeting with donors and officials from all levels of government, along with the standard daily management duties, the second-in-command would need to handle the academic side of things as well as the “business of the business,” which a provost does. And in the fallout of the 2008 global financial crisis, it was imperative that Queen’s get back on a solid financial footing.

At that time, Patrick Deane was vice-principal (academic) but he would soon be offered the role of president at McMaster. Dr. Deane’s departure allowed Dr. Woolf to make the transition to the new role first with appointing as interim provost, for one year, former dean of Arts and Science Robert Silverman, and then, in 2011, with the hiring of Alan Harrison, an economist and then provost and vice-president (academic) at the University of Calgary. Moving into the role at Queen’s, Dr. Harrison was critical in addressing Queen’s then-difficult financial situation.

“I owe an enormous amount of credit to him for the work he did to transform the budget model at Queen’s,” says Dr. Woolf, who adds that he had arrived at the conclusion that the university’s budgeting system needed change after a round of visits to academic departments early in his tenure. “I realized after visiting with one particular department that there were fundamental problems with the existing budget model. Turning the budgeting process on its head was a key piece of the puzzle to shift Queen’s back in a sustainable direction.”

The current budget model, formally adopted in 2013, uses a revenue attribution system, meaning that operating dollars from tuition, government operating grants, and research overhead, go directly to the faculties and schools that generate them, rather than to the university centrally. Each faculty and school is now responsible for paying its own operating costs, including a charge for its use of the central shared services, such as the library, IT services, and student services. “The result is that the deans have far greater responsibility for, and control over, revenues and costs flowing from their operations,” says Dr. Woolf. “And it provides the faculties and schools with an incentive to cut costs where possible and to develop new revenue-generating programs and activities.

“The new budget model has also made Queen’s more resilient as an institution and we are now in a position where we can better withstand turbulence, including the recent tuition cut by the provincial government.”

Julie Gordon-Woolf has a couple of favourite moments from the past 10 years. Her personal highlight was convocation 2015, when she graduated from Queen’s with a Master of Science in Healthcare Quality, a degree she began in 2013.

Participating in the ceremony in Grant Hall, as he has always done as principal, Woolf “hooded” his wife when she received her degree. After the hooding, in a wonderfully intimate moment, she turned around and kissed her husband; he then gave her flowers, and she got back in the line and shook his hand, as well as the hand of Chancellor Leech.

[photo of Daniel Woolf and Julie-Gordon Woolf at her convocation in 2015]
Daniel Woolf and Julie Gordon-Woolf after her convocation in 2015  Photo: Lars Hagberg

“That was the first time a principal had hooded a spouse at Queen’s, and it was just so lovely,” says Ms. Gordon-Woolf. “I love the photo we have of this occasion, and I have it plastered in several spots around our house.”

Ms. Gordon-Woolf also speaks fondly of their annual “cookie drop” on campus. Each year, the couple has picked a date during exam time in April to visit the libraries on campus and hand out sugar cookies to students, with the hope of lifting spirits during a busy and stressful time. In Douglas Library, they would head upstairs into the 1923 Reading Room, affectionately known as the “Harry Potter room.” It is always so quiet in that “big, cavernous room,” she says, and when students realized the principal was there handing out cookies, “you could hear the buzz of their quiet chatter and I just loved that.”

[photo of Principal Woolf giving cookies to a student in Douglas Library]
Daniel Woolf distributes cookies to students in the Harry Potter room in 2016. The annual cookie drop was started by Dr. Woolf and Julie Gordon-Woolf in 2011. Photo: Andrew Carroll


Some of those wonderful moments, such as the cookie drop, stemmed from tougher ones – after a succession of suicides on campus, plus two in the dead of winter when spirits are often lowest, to remind them of services available to them – not just in terms of counselling support, but at all levels of campus life, from fitness and yoga classes, to academic writing and learning support. Other priorities surfaced in recent years. Dr. Woolf focused on diversity and inclusion at Queen’s – and their ugly counterpart, racism on campus – after an infamous costume party in late 2016.

A 2016 Queen’s student Hallowe’en party drew national attention when party photos appeared online that showed white students wearing costumes that depicted offensive racist stereotypes.

“I will name one regret, and that is not jumping on this sooner,” says Dr. Woolf, of the need to address aspects of the Queen’s culture that have made it difficult for many on campus to feel welcome. “With many other things happening, it fell off the radar. But I do believe some progress has been made, and my successor will be able to continue moving forward.”

He received a little pushback from some quarters on his priority to address diversity and inclusion. A few of his alumni correspondents worried that  Queen’s was being too “politically correct.” But as he wrote in a column in the Alumni Review in 2017,

My perspective is simply this: organizations must change, adapt, and remain in tune with social standards (and, ideally, lead on their progressive reform), just as they must change and adapt with respect to pedagogical practices or areas of research…A university is an evolving institution; if it stands still, it will not survive, let alone thrive.

[photo of Daniel Woolf recording his CFRC radio show]
Daniel Woolf in his home office, where he records episodes of his CFRC radio show, “Dark Glasses,” which features jazz and pop music. Listen to the show online at www.cfrc.ca.  Photo: Julie Gordon-Woolf

 Over the last decade, Daniel Woolf has stayed attuned to campus life in a number of ways, through his long-running music show “Dark Glasses” on CFRC Radio  and his efforts to keep teaching, as well as supervise graduate students, and complete research projects. And he keeps many Twitter followers (nearly 10,000) happy with his regular posts about grammar, antiquarian books, Tudor history, his cats Basia and Luis, travel highlights, and university happenings. “These things all fall under the category of what keeps Daniel sane,” he says. Ms. Gordon-Woolf – who has also kept Dr. Woolf sane, acting as his informal adviser and his confidante after difficult days on the job – adds that he has always been a 24/7 principal, and that has taken its toll after 10 years of a jam-packed schedule. As July approaches, Daniel Woolf looks forward to determining his own schedule again, settling in to read the stack of books accumulating in his home office, and preparing to write two books during his two-year leave before he begins teaching again in fall 2021.



[screen capture from Principal Woolf's tweet about proper use of language


"I think one of the things people will remember about Daniel is not just what he has done, but who he is,” says Ms. Gordon-Woolf. “He is an academic at heart, whose mind is often elsewhere. He is also a funny guy with a wonderful sense of humour. He thinks in puns – the first things out of his mouth in the morning are puns – and his tweets, the cats, the grammar – I think people will remember that. He is not just a principal – while an introvert, he’s a personable guy and he loves sharing all these things with people.”

[screenshot of Principal Woolf's tweet about his cat]

[cover image of the Queen's Alumni Review issue 2, 2019, showing the 'Together' message in Mitchell Hall]