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Update regarding HLTH 102

The following is an update from Queen's Provost and Vice-Principal (Academic) Alan Harrison regarding HLTH 102, Physical Determinants of Health:

In response to concerns that were recently expressed regarding HLTH 102, Physical Determinants of Health, a course offered by Queen’s University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Studies (SKHS), Principal Daniel Woolf asked me to gather and review pertinent information.  In doing so, the principal reaffirmed the university’s commitment to the academic freedom of our faculty members, but also noted that the university expects its faculty members to present intellectually rigorous course material.

Many of the concerns asserted that the course instructor had taken a position of opposing vaccination and was teaching this to students without scientific evidence to support that position.  Most of these concerns were a reaction to the lecture slides, which had been provided by the instructor to students in HLTH 102, and which were subsequently circulated widely on social media.

Recognizing the importance of context in matters such as this, I reviewed both the HLTH 102 slides and the many comments communicated to the university in different forms.  In addition I met with, among others, Dr. Susan Mumm, Dean of Arts and Science, Dr. Jean Côté, SKHS’s Director, and Ms. Melody Torcolacci, the instructor of HLTH 102.  In my discussions with Dr. Côté, he relayed to me the details of conversations he had with a number of current HLTH 102 students.

As I have stated previously, slides, though important, are a supplement to a lecture, and are not intended to, nor should they, replace the lecture.  It was important, therefore, that I gained a better understanding of the instructor’s actual lectures on vaccination.  As a result of my information-gathering, which included comments from students actually in the class, I am not able to state unequivocally that the instructor’s sole intention was to present the case against vaccination.  Many who were not at the lectures, and saw only the slides, asserted that this was her intention; when reviewing the slides, one is able to understand how they reached this conclusion.

While I was still gathering information, Ms. Torcolacci first requested a leave from HLTH 102 for the remainder of the term, and then a leave of absence from the university until April 30.  The SKHS granted both requests, and agrees with Ms. Torcolacci that this leave is in the best interests of both herself and her students.  Faculty members in SKHS are working with the director to ensure that Ms. Torcolacci’s leave will not in any way adversely affect the courses she was responsible for, and, most importantly, that the students in the courses do not feel in any way disadvantaged.

The director of SKHS has confirmed that he had previously been made aware of concerns regarding Ms. Torcolacci’s delivery of HLTH 102, and had addressed these concerns with Ms. Torcolacci.  He readily acknowledges that more needs to be done in this regard.  He furthermore recognizes that the issues raised have overshadowed SKHS’s excellent work, and views rectifying this as a matter of high priority for him and his colleagues.  I am confident that they will work together assiduously to remedy the situation.

Dr. Côté and Ms. Torcolacci have agreed that a different instructor will be assigned to HTLH 102 when it is next offered.  Before the beginning of the next academic year, Dr. Côté and others, both inside and outside SKHS, will work with Ms. Torcolacci to ensure that, when she returns to teaching, the courses for which she is responsible are presented in a way that is intellectually rigorous, that any scientific evidence is presented objectively, and that personal biases are declared.  These are expectations the university has of all of its faculty members.  It is not part of a university’s purpose to tell its students how to think; our goal is to help them to learn how to think for themselves.

In a quite separate development that began in early fall 2014, the SKHS is in the midst of a review of its programs.  This occurs every seven years, as part of the Queen’s University Quality Assurance Processes (QUQAPs).  The aim of the QUQAPs is to ensure continued high quality for both existing and new undergraduate, graduate and professional programs at Queen’s, and in the broader picture, ensure consistency and cohesion of all academic programs offered by Ontario’s publicly-assisted universities.  The process includes a rigorous review by a team of experts external to Queen’s.  In the case of SKHS, the external review is being conducted simultaneously with an external accreditation process undertaken by the Canadian Council of University Physical Education and Kinesiology Administrators (CCUPEKA). 

The QUQAPs process dictates consideration of the external reviewers’ report and the responses to the report from the faculty dean and the department head (in this case, SKHS’s director), the outcome of which is a set of recommendations to the provost that will assure continuous improvement in program quality.  Quite separately CCUPEKA will determine, based on its own processes, whether the SKHS should continue to enjoy CCUPEKA accredited status.

In summary:

  • Ms. Melody Torcolacci has requested, and has been granted, a leave of absence from the university until April 30, 2015.
  • Ms. Torcolacci will not be assigned to HTLH 102 when it is offered next year.
  • The SKHS will work with Ms. Torcolacci to ensure the courses for which she is responsible next year are intellectually rigorous, that any scientific evidence is presented objectively, and that any personal biases are declared.
  • A current QUQAPS review of the SKHS, and a separate accreditation process, will help to ensure the continued high quality of all the school’s programs.

The situation in which the university has found itself recently has also revealed that, although there are processes in place to allow students to express concerns about courses, there may be more that we could do.  With this in mind, I intend, with some urgency, to consider this issue with the university’s deans.  The deans and I will work together to determine if any deficiencies exist, and, if they do, how they might best be addressed.

Finally, I hope I speak for everyone at Queen’s, whether student, staff or faculty, when I say that I was personally shocked by the willful nature of many comments directed against Ms. Torcolacci personally.  Many of the worst examples were delivered online, often anonymously.  There are kinder ways of registering concern that are much more likely to be effective if the goal is to effect change when it is warranted.