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From the principal: The academic cloister

From the principal: The academic cloister

Principal Patrick Deane. Photo: Bernard Clark


Relocation, even when it goes smoothly and does not involve large numbers of animals as ours did, is always a challenge. By Canada Day this year, my wife, Sheila, and I had completed our move back to the Kingston area. But, as people all around us were planning for fireworks and other forms of ritual celebration,we were still having trouble seeing past the chaos of boxes, the potentially warring factions of animals let loose on our new farmland, and the piles of household detritus that had not as yet found a place.

The following morning, having struggled in vain to find a suitable belt and other clothing essentials, and therefore unintentionally displaying what I could only hope would be perceived as a charmingly improvised casual style, I arrived on the Queen’s campus for my first working day as the new principal. It had just rained but the sun was out. After nine years away, I was reminded of the beauty of Queen’s and the unique scholarly community that inhabits and animates the place. I remembered also the way in which Michael MacMillan’s 1976 film, The Academic Cloister – made when he was a student at Queen’s, yet quickly forbidden to be shown on campus – visually pitted vibrant student life against the intimidating mass of our historic limestone buildings. The film made the still very relevant point that the university derives its value and life less from its physical fabric, its history and stability, than from the people who come here to challenge and be challenged, to search for knowledge and truth, and to grow in the process.

We are certainly living in a period of rapid change, and we can be sure that Queen’s, like all universities, will increasingly be required in the coming years to adapt itself to new technologies, pedagogies, and even epistemologies. The walls of the cloister will become more porous in the sway of internationalization, reconciliation, and the demand for more experiential learning opportunities. The universities’ traditional, and indeed, defining aloofness from contingent social and economic realities will be harder and harder to defend. Yet this is an extraordinarily exciting moment, as the academy, and our university in particular, seeks to relocate itself in a future as yet undefined and unspecified. And in that context, some beloved heirlooms and our most comfortable furniture may not appear at
first to have a place.

This is an extraordinarily exciting moment, as the academy, and our university in particular, seeks to relocate itself in a future as yet undefined and unspecified.

Boldness is required, but prudence is also recommended. One consequence of throwing everything out is that when you eventually take possession of your new home, it may prove for you uncongenial to habitation. How then do we decide what we should take and what can be left behind? I think we must remember the message of The Academic Cloister: the university now and forever has no greater value than as a means by which the potential of human beings, society, and the natural world can be realized and advanced. What will we need to pursue this mission in the future? How will we want to clothe ourselves, and what furniture will be required? The answers to these questions may be unclear right now, but there can be no doubt about the mission itself.

[cover image of the Queen's Alumni Review issue 3, 2019, showing art conservator Heidi Sobol with a painting by Rembrandt]