Office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Dr. Daniel R. Woolf

Principal and Vice-Chancellor

Dr. Daniel R. Woolf

Principal and Vice-Chancellor

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Issues on today's campuses: How Queen's is rising to the challenge

Principal Woolf delivered a keynote address at the Crescent School, an all-boys private school in Toronto on March 7, 2018.


Good evening and thank you for welcoming me to your beautiful school.

Let me thank my friend and Queen’s classmate (from 40 years ago), Mr. John Lynch for helping to arrange this visit.

I’m looking forward to speaking with you this evening about issues you’ll find on university campuses today and how Queen’s is responding to them. I am aware that many Crescent grads have gone on to further their education at Queen’s.

And many of you in the audience tonight are proud alumni, myself included. And, some of you are hoping to be alumni in the future. My experiences at Queen’s as an undergrad, and later as a post-doctoral fellow were wonderful and helped shape my life and career. Becoming Principal of my alma mater in 2009 was both an honour and a challenge that I still appreciate today. But first, I don’t want to assume that everyone here is aware of Queen’s and its reputation.

I ask that you allow me a few minutes to tell you more about the university I’ve been privileged to both attend and lead. Queen’s offers a definitive university experience. We like to say we challenge and support in equal measure – we rank the highest among Canadian universities in student experience, bursaries and awards, and in library resources. We also have the highest graduation rate in the country, which means when students start at Queen’s, they attain their degree at Queen’s. We offer many different programs and international learning opportunities including time at our castle campus—some say it’s like Hogwarts—in Sussex, England.

And to add to your academic experience, we have more than 300 clubs—the most of any school in Canada—that can cater to a wide range of interests. Joining clubs is a great way to make new friends and develop new passions. We also have a very active student government and I encourage you to look into all of these kinds of opportunities at any post-secondary education institution you attend. 

The quality of students at Queen’s is very, very high. This year, we will receive close to 43,000 applications for 4,500 spots in September. Not everyone is accepted at Queen’s, of course. We also focus on increasing our international student component which is now over 10% of the student body and have developed a number of different entry points for students from racialized backgrounds and those who are the first in their family to attend university.

This is very important in building a diverse student body. You are a student for a short time at Queen’s, but an alumni for life. The relationship that graduates have with Queen’s is unlike any other I’ve experienced.

I’ve been lucky to attend and teach at many different universities across the country and at Oxford in England, and I’ve never seen the fierce commitment and pride alumni have to their school as Queen’s alumni do. We welcome alumni back to campus each fall for homecoming and I’m always amazed when we see large class reunions 20, 30, 40 and even 50 years after graduating coming home to celebrate their school.

What’s Kingston like?

If you haven’t been there before, I encourage you to visit. It’s a city of about 110,000 people that sits right where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River. Queen’s enjoys a beautiful waterfront location that is very close to parks and the downtown core which has a wide variety of shops and restaurants that provide all the amenities you need. While it’s not Toronto, it’s a very comfortable and livable city. I also want to point out that joining me tonight is Chris Coupland of our Undergraduate Admission and Recruitment team who is happy to take any questions you may have about attending Queen’s. 

So be sure to speak to either Chris or me after the talk. So, that ends my Queen’s ‘pitch’ for this evening.    

When John asked me to speak to you about issues facing university campuses today, I said I could probably talk about this topic for ten years. Don’t worry, I won’t do that tonight!

Some of the issues that he asked me to speak to are not new; and in fact, your parents and teachers experienced some of them when they were at university or college. However, the dimensions of the issues have changed over the past number of years and with how fast the world is moving now with social media, technology and an increasingly global society, others are emerging. Before we look at today’s issues however, I would like everyone in the room who attended university or college to think back to their first year and what it was like. For me, it was probably further back than for some of you. In fact, if anyone asked me in my first year if I had seen the latest ‘Star Wars’, I would have looked to the sky in amazement, as the first movie had not even hit theatres.

While the academic standards and rigours of student life were the same, things were also very different. We typed our papers on typewriters and took notes by hand, there were no laptops nor were the ‘answers in our pocket’ <<hold up phone>> thanks to Google, which meant we scoured every inch of the library searching for just the right book or journal article that would make our papers rock solid. Students today still depend on library resources, and you will spend a lot of time there, of course, but the libraries are used much differently than they were when your parents were students.

Some things are the same.

The need for balancing academic life with socializing and ‘down time’ is one. Cultivating your social circles, finding new interests and taking those steps towards becoming an independent adult all remain very important. This is a critical time in your life when you’re finding out who you really are, and often forming relationships that will stay with you for your lifetime. It is very exciting time that at other times, will be scary and stressful. Above all, this is the time when you’re becoming an adult. Your years as an undergrad are critical to your development and a launching pad to a wide open, bright future. There are some things you should be aware of that can influence your future plans for success, and I’d like to talk about some of those issues now.

It’s no secret that mental health problems are on the rise in Canada. Being a university student inherently means there are a lot of pressure and stressors, and in general, younger people are at a higher risk for developing mental illnesses. In fact, many more students than in the past are coming to university with a pre-existing mental illness diagnosis. To respond to this growing problem, a number of years ago, we launched the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health. The commission consulted with students, faculty, staff, health professionals and community partners to develop, and then implement, more than 100 recommendations to help promote a healthy community, ease transitions and foster resilience, encourage help-seeking and helping behavior and provide effective response, service and care.

The Commission created meaningful change at our university in raising the overall awareness of mental health and Queen’s is now considered a leader in offering mental health support and resources to students. We have counsellors embedded in every faculty and through our student centre, an expanding peer support network as well as our Human Rights Office, the Chaplain’s office and the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre that offer supports to students needing help. This is on top of the myriad of resources we have in place for academic help.

Our student affairs office also offers a number of very popular workshops for students on mental health issues with the goal of encouraging help-seeking behaviours, increasing awareness and reducing stigma around mental illness. The workshops cover topics like stress management, mindfulness, peer support and mental health first aid. We are also fortunate to have among our faculty, Dr. Heather Stuart, a leading mental health researcher who is the current Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair—the first such research chair in the world. Initiatives like the Bell Let’s Talk Day awareness events are quite a big deal on campus. Reducing the stigma around mental health is a priority and I’m very proud of the work Dr. Stuart and the Commission have done to help break down those barriers.

Next fall we are implementing our first fall term ‘break’. These two days will give students a chance to take a breather, catch up in their work and enjoy a bit of down time to help balance the demands of school. I know many students and faculty are looking forward to this time and while it’s not a full ‘reading week’ as is enjoyed in the winter term, I know it will be appreciated. I should also add that the transition to high school to university is not the only transition you’ll experience as a student. We have supports in place to help students make other transitions including living in residence to off-campus housing, and then transitioning from being a student to a graduate. After that, our career centres can help you make the transition to the working world, or academic advisors can help you as you further your studies.

Related to this is one of the biggest issues facing university campuses today and that’s alcohol and substance abuse and the rise of an extreme partying culture. This is a serious problem and I will stress again that it’s not just Queen’s that’s facing this but all universities across Canada. I have about 14 months remaining in my term as Principal and it is one of my key priorities to help put lasting solutions in place to help alleviate these issues so the next Principal does not have to spend as much time worrying about this as I have. To be fair, of course, drinking and partying have been around for many, many years and I don’t think it’s a stretch for me to say your parents, and me, participated in parties and drinking while at university. If you didn’t, I apologize for assuming you did.

But I don’t want you to think I’m here saying, “don’t party, don’t drink.” That would be very hypocritical. What’s changed, however, is the degree to which drinking and substance abuse now occur, and that the parties seem to encourage very extreme and dangerous behaviours. I think there are a few reasons for this, one is accessibility. It seems to be much easier to acquire alcohol and drugs than before and not just a moderate amount. Some of that comes from how much money students have access to so they can buy large amounts of alcohol at a time. 

I believe social media also plays a significant role in amplifying the pressures around alcohol and substance abuse. If you think back to a house party you attended ‘back in the day’, it may have involved a few of your people daring each other to shotgun a beer or two. Now, the ‘dare’ can be streamed on social media to a much larger audience encouraging overuse, and it’s not just shotgunning a beer or two, it’s usually drinking well past the point of consciousness. And this type of behavior is being seen across all university campuses right now. Queens’ is committed to fostering a campus culture that endorses healthy, responsible and low-risk drinking practices among students. I should point out that more than 90% of students in the first year are in fact, underage. Orientation week is a ‘dry week’ at our residences to help alleviate the pressures put on students to drink and place everyone on an equal playing field. This is also in place at many other universities in Canada.

I should add that for young men in their first year, this problem is sometimes even more acute and can lead to placing them at higher risks for mental health problems, mental illness, suicide and substance abuse disorders. To address this, a Campus Caring research project funded by the Movember movement (you know how men grow ridiculous mustaches in November to raise money?) has helped make our campus more supportive to young men facing the pressure to engage in unhealthy behaviours. The research part of the project examined male freshmen’s substance abuse and mental health experiences as well as their perceptions and mental health attitudes.

This began at Queen’s, and then extended to Dalhousie and the University of Calgary. The other part of the project initiated a student leadership group called Queen’s ‘For the Boys’ which is now a sanctioned club on campus. The goal of this group is to raise awareness about mental wellness among young men, to encourage safe substance use, and to correct misperceptions. They encourage men to look out for each other, take care of yourself and reject the notion of toxic masculinity being tied to reckless drinking and dangerous habits.

“For the Boys” helps young men understand the overall impact of their actions to themselves, their peers and overall mental well-being. I’m very pleased with the work this group has accomplished and the conversation they’re pursuing among our students. Another key component of the university’s strategy in addressing these issues is by taking a community-wide approach to the problem working with our partners in law enforcement, healthcare, city government and St. Lawrence College. We have St. Patrick’s Day coming up in ten days and for the past number of months, we’ve been working with our partners to put plans to place to help alleviate the demands on emergency rooms, increase police presence and monitoring of large unsanctioned events to prevent them from causing undue harm and also improving communication among service providers to allow for a coordinated response. I should clarify of course that St. Patrick’s Day is not specifically a Queen’s event, nor restricted to students, but we hope the strategies put in place to address this event will help us for university-sanctioned and non-sanctioned events surrounding Homecoming and ‘move-in’ week next fall. The other big issue on the horizon, of course, is the upcoming legalization of marijuana.

We currently have a cannabis working group developing policies for how we will address this additional facet of substance use on campus. As a parent, I know many of you have had discussions with your kids about alcohol and substance use and abuse. I encourage you to keep the conversation going even after they have moved on to university. Yes, they are becoming adults and gaining new independence, but that does not mean they do not value your advice and counsel and no longer need you to lend an ear or show some support.

As for the students, I encourage you to know about the pressures you will face and come up with strategies for how to handle them. If you don’t want to drink, how will you respond if a beer is placed in your hand? I read a story of one student who would take the beer into the bathroom, flush it down the toilet and then refill the bottle with water, so no one would know she wasn’t drinking beer. That may not be how you’d like to handle it, but it was her way of dealing with the pressure of excessive drinking. And, if you are going to choose to drink, be responsible and aware of the dangers of excess. Take care of yourself and look out for your friends. The choices you will make related to drinking and substance abuse can have very negative long-term effects, so know what those are and make decisions you feel comfortable with.

As I mentioned, alcohol and substance abuse are often related to mental health issues. They are also related to sexual violence which is another growing issue facing campuses today. While sexual violence is not a new issue, the #metoo movement has increased the awareness of it and is changing the perceptions of the issue, not only on campus, but across all of society. We have sexual violence prevention and response policies and protocols in place to help protect students, and have extensive resources both on campus and off to help victims of sexual violence.

Key to prevention, of course, is raising awareness of healthy relationships and sexuality, and about consent. We also have a peer training program that helps bystanders safely intervene if they witness sexual harassment or assault taking place. More than 2500 students have gone through this training program so far, and it is ongoing. With all of these programs in place, we are hoping to shift the culture and conversation at Queen’s around sexual violence to one of awareness and prevention rather than only treatment and response, critical as these are, because we want to see the number of incidences decrease.

This conversation will continue to evolve and speaking to all of you as young men, I hope you understand the leading role you play in changing the culture around sexual violence. I know that many of you have already engaged in discussions around healthy relationships and consent with your parents and teachers, so it’s important to know that these discussions will not end once you arrive at university. So let me change topics now, I realize I’ve talked about some pretty heavy stuff for the first part of my talk, so I hope to change that discourse somewhat by talking about how Queen’s is preparing students for exciting futures. The nature of the workforce is changing. We’ve probably all heard the doomsday predictions that we will all be replaced by robots in a few short years.

With the rise of artificial intelligence and advanced tech comes a disruption across almost every industry and job sector. This means we need to build other skills, besides knowledge, to create a more, well-rounded graduate who is ready for the workforce of today and the future. Those skills, sometimes called the soft skills, are things like critical thinking, analysis, teamwork, creative thinking, organization, communication and more that are needed for the workforce, both today and in the future.

Our teaching and learning practices are evolving to balance teaching knowledge with soft skills and you’ll find more group work and applied learning happening within our classrooms. We are also changing our evaluation methods to measure how students are building these skills. Along with changing our teaching and learning practices, we are also revitalizing many of our physical spaces on campus to help foster collaboration and group work. Our lecture halls and labs are also being redesigned to be more flexible in design and accommodate new technology. This is a tremendous undertaking that will not happen overnight, but we are committed to changing the spaces in which we learn to accommodate the needs of future students. This fall, we will open our new Innovation and Wellness Centre, a new space for our Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, our innovation centre and new student wellness facilities.  Experiential learning is also becoming a key component of the learning experience at Queen’s.

Professors are building these components into their courses to help students apply the knowledge they are building. As well, we are seeing more students participate in the Undergraduate Internship Program. And many of our graduates are innovators who take research they’ve worked on at school and then through our Innovation Park community have commercialized it to create successful businesses. We have supported start-ups in everything from nanotechnology and laser-based welding to new food production who have since gone on to become international success stories.

I should also add that attitudes towards learning are also shifting. It was once enough to get your formal training at university or college and then head into the workforce. Now, learning must continue throughout your lifetime and we are seeing many graduates come back to Queen’s to complete more training while they are working in their careers. Our curriculum is growing to accommodate more lifetime learners with online courses, post-graduate certificate programs, week-long training sessions and other specialized programs. The other aspect of the workforce that is changing is that we need to reflect our global society.

It is a priority at Queen’s to become a more welcoming place for all and we have a diversity and inclusion strategy that is helping us achieve that. Creating an environment for people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures and views to be successful helps us become a stronger institution. The same is true for the learning environment—we don’t benefit from everyone coming from the same point of view. The richness in diversity of thought helps us challenge our own perceptions and beliefs which helps make them stronger. Over the past year and a half, we have advanced our diversity and inclusivity portfolio through two different task forces that have been working to implement a number of recommendations to make Queen’s a more welcoming place to learn, teach and work.

One is our action plan resulting from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. We have instituted a University Council on Anti-Racism and Equity that helps us coordinate, review and report on the progress of our initiatives. One of our key priorities right now is faculty renewal with the goal of hiring 200 new faculty over five years and we are embarking on this initiative with the lens of increasing the diversity of our faculty and being more inclusive. And just this week, I received the final report from our Orientation Review Committee that is recommending ways we can make Orientation Week more welcoming to everyone.

I’m looking forward to having some of these recommendations in place for September when some of you will be coming to Queen’s. I encourage all of you when you get to university, wherever it may be (but I hope it’s Queens), to get to know people from all different backgrounds; people you may never have had an opportunity to meet before. Doing so will provide you with a rich learning opportunity you might never get in the classroom and help you enrich your life overall.

And the final issue I’d like to speak to tonight is the topic of free speech and academic freedom.

There has been a growing swell of support for silencing voices on campuses that are deemed to challenge conventional views. We believe strongly that everyone within the university community should feel able to explore and debate diverse and even uncomfortable viewpoints if that occurs in a respectful, academic environment. Freedom of speech and academic freedom do have limits, of course, when it comes to things like hate speech and the incitement of violence.  High profile and tragic events like the demonstrations in Charlottesville last year have caused academic institutions to question their limits on freedom of speech and academic freedom. We implemented a policy last fall that helps provide guidelines around renting space for events and the university’s right to cancel events it deems could be unsafe, in conflict with the law or infringe on the rights of others.   

On Monday night, our Faculty of Law hosted a lecture by Dr. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto. If you haven’t heard of Dr. Peterson, he is currently a very controversial and high-profile speaker who has been known to criticize the notion of ‘compelled speech.’ There were calls to cancel the event at Queen’s which I and many others did not agree with, so we took the opportunity to issue a statement outlining the university’s position on academic freedom. If the views expressed are not a violation of Canadian law or otherwise demonstrate an intention to incite hatred and violence, then as academics we should listen and present opposing ideas through informed and respectful dialogue. If anything, cancelling an event like this takes the opportunity away for challenging the speaker, seeking clarification or presenting an alternative point of view. I should add that the Jordan Peterson event happened not without some controversy and two separate protests, one in support of the event, and one opposed, which are also valid when conducted peacefully and respectfully.

Overall, we received very positive feedback on our firm commitment to academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the lecture by Dr. Peterson was not impeded, giving 900 students a chance to hear some challenging viewpoints and question them in an open forum. I think it’s a critical role of universities to facilitate these kinds of exchanges. I am going to finish there because as I mentioned, I can continue talking on all of these topics for quite some time.

I think we’ve covered a lot so far, and I know you have questions.

But before I take your questions, I do hope you’ll afford me the chance to leave you with some parting words of advice. Both parents and students are on the precipice of a very exciting time, and as a father to three young adults who have all successfully completed university and are now well on their own paths, I want to leave you with a few parting words.

To the parents: don’t be afraid to ‘let go’. This is the start of the greatest learning experience of your son’s life as he becomes an independent adult. Accept that you may no longer be there for everything, you may not be able to ‘fix’ things when they go wrong—and there will be some days that will go wrong—and feel confident in knowing that you have prepared your son well for this world. Also, relish your newfound independence, whether you have other children home or if your nest is now empty, celebrate it and learn how to be comfortable in your new role as a parent to a university student. If there are siblings at home, acknowledge that this is also a transition for them. I think you’ll find everyone in the family will experience new changes and challenges as your son embarks on this journey.

For the students, know that just because you’re in university, don’t expect to become a ‘university student’ overnight. It takes time to learn how to adapt to your new role; it is a big transition that brings new studying habits, new friends and social circles. Besides the new knowledge you’re gaining in your classes, you are also learning to do new things you’ve never had to do before like laundry and managing your money.

Be patient with yourself and know that after a while things will click and you’ll find your way. If I can leave you with one key thought tonight it’s this: You are not alone, and there is help. Often the transition to full-time university student and living away from home can be very hard, but you are not the only person experiencing these emotional highs and lows. Making a successful transition means not being afraid to seek help and I assure you, help is there and we all want you to be well and successful. Please remember that. 

Also, one more practical piece of advice: it’s important to manage your time well. If you haven’t practiced time management before now, take some time to figure out a system that works for you before September. Time management is crucial and the sooner you master it, the better off you’ll be.

In September, I will be welcoming the incoming class of 2023 and it will be bittersweet for me as it will mark the beginning of my final academic year as Principal. I will be making a transition next year as well, following a period of academic leave, I will be returning to the classroom to teach history once again. So, I wish all of you the best of luck as you finish your high school career and I hope to see many of you at Queen’s during Orientation Week, or in a few years in one of my history classes!

Thank you very much for hosting me here tonight.

I’m happy to take any questions you have.