New Queen’s principal a good fit for town, gown
Point of view THE WHIG-STANDARD August 28th, 2009
With news this week that the opening of the Queen’s Centre has been further delayed by storm damage, it’s shaping up to be a fortuitous time for incoming principal Daniel Woolf to start his term. The new Queen’s principal assumes the university’s top administrative position next week.
Woolf will lead the university, one of this city’s largest employers and an educational institution known around the globe, at a time when a new chapter is ready to be written. The issues still loom large on campus. The Queen’s Centre, the school’s and this city’s single largest construction project, has run over budget estimates, and its opening has been delayed by damage caused by the elements.
The faculty association and university negotiators have locked horns in labour talks that stalled, then broke off, and now are set to resume. Students and staff are also staring at the reality, as are many in organizations in the public and private sectors, that budget cuts are required.
The issues started creeping up on Queen’s during Karen Hitchcock’s term as principal. Hitchcock, although adept at attracting research funds, never seemed to fit the Queen’s mould — she was purely an administrator. Her term was also clouded by the annual Aberdeen Street party and growing concern
about it in Kingston.
Her successor, Tom Williams, who rescheduled Homecoming weekend, has given Woolf a fair chance to deal with Queen’s major concerns, such as staffing and programming. The new principal, who will be teaching a first-year history course, will have a stronger connection with students, something Hitchcock was criticized for lacking. That campus connection is critical for students, who need to trust the university’s leader during a time of turbulence. Woolf’s experience at Queen’s as a student also keeps his attention on the community. He believes that the relationship between Kingston and Queen’s is critical and that each needs the other. The fact he has moved into Sydenham district suggests that he is attuned to neighbours’ concerns and Kingston concerns.
Queen’s is fighting through a period of uncertainty and Woolf seems a good choice to get the university through it.
New principal has chance to bring real change
The Kingston Whig Standard August 31, 2009
Letters to the Editor
The editorial “New Queen’s principal a good fit for town, gown” (Aug. 28) shares my optimism that Queen’s University’s new principal will take the lead in restoring the academic mission of Queen’s as the top administrative priority. This will mean finding ways to correct past financial mismanagement, undertaking inclusive and informed academic planning, and, most importantly, putting a stop to the onslaught of cuts that are eroding the quality of teaching and learning at Queen’s.
The editorial suggests that budget reductions affecting staff and students are inevitable, but this is not the case. Creativity, coupled with political will and a collective approach to change, can radically alter the course previous administrations have set. Let’s hope Principal Daniel Woolf seizes the moment.
Samantha King Associate Professor
Kinesiology & Health Studies Queen’s University
A Woolf in Queen’s clothing
Kingston Whig Standard August 22, 2009.
Q: You officially take over the job of principal in two
weeks time. Are the nerves building up a bit about taking on the top post at Queen’s?
A: I wouldn’t say the nerves, I would say I’m getting very excited about starting. I’ve had the benefit of a nice, long, seven-month transition, which has been incredibly useful to make a couple of visits to campus over the winter, having been here since July and getting reacclimatized to Kingston, with the campus, getting into a new house, so I feel like a plane that’s on the runway with the jets starting and is ready to go.
Q: Let me ask you about the flight that plane has to take when it does takeoff. What do you see as the biggest challenges you will face as principal?
A: Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. The most obvious one is the financial one. Every university across North America is hurting in some way from the past year, whether it’s from loss in endowments, which we’ve had our share, or a dearth of operating funds. I’ve experienced that at several institutions across the country and Queen’s is no different, nor is this the first time Queen’s has had financial challenges.
I have every confidence that if we pull together as a community, we’ll weather this bit of turbulence. I don’t minimize it — this is serious stuff we have to deal with — but it’s also important, keeping with the aviation metaphor maybe one last time, that we keep our minds on where we’re going and that there’s a trip to be had — an exciting trip.
While I will obviously go along with the vice-principals and deans and be very much focused on budgetary matters, I think it’s also fair to say that I’ll be spending a fair bit of time this year continuing with that process of getting reacquainted with campus. I’m also a professor in this department and actually doing some teaching in the first-year history course, which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve got a couple of grad students and post-docs to work with, so that’s a little piece of my time.
One of the biggest things that I’m most excited about is a community-wide dialogue over the next year on an academic planning exercise. It’s a good opportunity, which we should do even if we weren’t in some financial difficulty, but financial difficulty certainly provides occasion for considering the way we do things.
Q: Outgoing principal Tom Williams talked about changing the way courses are delivered or removing courses from the curriculum in order to save costs. What other measures do you foresee taking after the review?
A: I think you’re down at the 5,000-foot level and I’m up at the 30,000-foot level. I’m talking about the core things that make Queen’s Queen’s.
As an alumnus, as a parent of a Queen’s student, I certainly have my sense of what those are, but it’s certainly not exactly coterminus with everybody else’s sense of what it is, so what I’m hoping to have between now and about this time next year is a fairly systematic and structured set of conversations around campus about what is it we really value about the place, where we want to be in five years, where faculties and departments see themselves in five years and how they see themselves as part of Queen’s and Queen’s, of course, within wider communities that include Kingston, Ontario, Canada and the world.
I would like the university to consider what are the major strengths, what are the things we really can excel at in our core business, and our core business is teaching, and research. Community service also. Those are things that are essential to the university and I don’t know that we have had a really systematic conversation about what those things should be instead of trying to do everything.
Q: As principal, you will have your own vision and your idea of what Queen’s should be and that will play a role in those discussions. What is your vision for Queen’s in five years?
A:My vision of Queen’s is slightly coloured by my experience here, which was an immensely positive one. I’ve had a very happy and successful career in academia largely because of the undergraduate experience that I received as a student here. I treasure that memory. That being said, we always have to make sure that the past, while being a great place to visit, isn’t necessarily somewhere we want to live. This isn’t the same university is was 33 years ago. We’re into many more things than we were then on the research front (and) we have a far more diverse student body than we’re sometimes given credit for.
If I were to try and pin down where I think we may want to go, it’s that we have a really unique opportunity to be something that I don’t think a lot of other universities have mastered … which is a university with an absolutely first-class undergraduate experience, inside and outside the classroom, (that) also occurs in a research intensive environment. We are small enough that students can get to know their professors and their instructors. Obviously, class sizes are larger than when I was here, something that I also have to be aware of, but that being said, we’re not a really small institution. We are a member of the G13 club of research intensive universities — that has value. I’d like to see a closer alignment between research and teaching such that the two mutually require each other.
My son was very happy with his first-year experience here. He came here after a little push, but he said to me (that) coming here was the best decision he ever made. We’re doing a lot right, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look at making things better.
Q: You play two roles: principal and professor. How do you balance the demands of being an administrator with the needs of the academic inside you?
A: There’s no question that in terms of the disposition of my time — as I’ve been an administrator in different roles for the past 10 years — that research and teaching have been moved to the back burner and, in fairness, it’s going to go off the stove and into the sink.
It’s very important the academic organization be run by academics. Ever since I got to administration, I’ve seen myself as a professor who was taking a time out to do some university service, although over a much more extended period than perhaps I originally planned or a more senior role than I ever dreamed, but at the end of the day, I’m a professor who is doing university leadership right now and I need to keep some level of contact with students and some level of contact with research because that’s the core business of what we do.
Q: You come into a university where there is an issue with faculty morale and the largest staff association rejected a contract offer last month. How do you rebuild that morale?
A: The financial things are short-term, painful and urgent, but it’s rebuilding that sense of community spirit. We’ve all got to pull in the same direction. Before I got into administration, I was very active in faculty association life at Dalhousie. I have seen different ways of interacting with employee groups. There will be times that we disagree … but at the end of the day, (while) we may have different senses of how to get there, we all want the best for this institution. I’m looking very much to meeting the leadership of the employee groups in the near future and working with them over the coming months and years.
We have had a rough patch. I would be disingenuous if I said everything was going to be perfect because it’s never like that, even in good times. A university is an exciting place precisely because it has complexities and different points of view and disagreements.
Q:Moving from the faculty and staff to the students — do you see yourself eating lunch in the cafeteria with the students?
A: Certainly. The realities of running and working in an office like this with so many appointments is that if it’s an entirely open door, not a lot of university business will get advanced. What I’m in favour of is structured accessibility.
It’s absolutely my intention to be visible. There’s lots of places to eat on campus. I’ve been down to Mackintosh-Corry Hall a few times, I’ve been down at the University Club a few times in the last few months, I’m going to be having regular chats with the rector and AMS president and executive, the president and executive of the graduate and professional students society, but it’s also important that I have face time with individual students and groups of students who aren’t necessarily all that active on campus. I think of students like my son, who goes to classes, goes out with his friends and the gym, but isn’t necessarily all that active in student politics.
Q: A few months ago, you attended a student-organized rally to push the government for more funding to universities. Is there an activist streak in you that students may not be aware of?
A: I wouldn’t say I was a particular activist. I was somewhat less active than my daughter who is a McGill student and is extremely politically active, but I was the head of this department’s student council when I was here.
Q: Has your son brought laundry home yet?
A: He has better laundry facilities in his apartment than we do.
Q: So you might go to his place.
A:We haven’t ruled that out.
Q:There is also the dialogue with the community at large. You talked about having chats with municipal leaders, but do you see yourself having regular chats with the community as a whole? As you said, this is “Queen’s University at Kingston.” How do you bring the community on campus?
A:I start by going to live in the community. It’s no great secret I bought a house in Sydenham ward and we live within walking distance of campus. I have had a number of chats, more informal than formal so far, with the mayor, the CEO of KEDCO, the new CEO of KGH. In fact, we’re thinking we would do a community leaders regular check-in just to catch up with each other a couple of times each term.
We’re going to look at other things we can do. Some universities have annual reports to the community, but certainly access to the community and talking to community leaders obviously (and) ordinary citizens on what the university is doing.
Universities and cities have had a long, symbiotic relationship going back 800 years and they’ve always had their ups and downs. I did my graduate work at Oxford after I left here as an undergraduate and Oxford was notorious in the Middle Ages for issues between city and university, so there’s nothing new here. I recognize we have had our issues in the last few years, particularly around Aberdeen Street, but my sense from everyone I’ve talked to since I’ve been here is that there’s a very positive atmosphere out there right now and I would hope to maintain some of the momentum principal Williams started in terms of very amicable relations. At the end of the day, Queen’s would not be Queen’s without Kingston, it’s just fundamental to what Queen’s is like, and Kingston wouldn’t be Kingston without Queen’s. They are mutually dependent on each other.
Q:Have you stopped to chat with any of your neighbours?
A:I have chatted with quite a few. I’ve pretty much met everybody on my block.
Q:What’s been the biggest surprise for you coming back to this campus?
A:Many of the areas, it’s like putting on a glove after 20 years and it still fits. Other areas there’s lots change. There’s lots of instructors that are around that weren’t around when I was here — it’s a bigger university than what it was in 1976 when I arrived. It has changed and it will continue to change. I wouldn’t have said that there are any huge surprises because I’ve had seven months since the announcement and four or five months when I was being recruited to regain my familiarity with the place. There’s a lot more places to eat downtown, I’ve got to say, which is really nice.
Q:You have to sit on the two search committees to find people to fill the university’s top financial post and chief fundraiser. What kind of people are you looking for to fill those roles?
A:There is a set number of competencies that we routinely expect from the titles. At the end of the day, all vice-principals, I’m looking for people who are team players and will champion their portfolios. The university is a very complicated, organic whole. It’s like football. If we’re going to win, we’ve got to pull together as a team. The search committees and I will be probing very much not just past experience and not just playing well in the sandbox with the other (vice-principals) and deans, but being able to build teams.
Q:The Gaels are going to be starting up a new football season pretty soon. Any predictions on how the team is going to do this year?
A:They’re going to win.
Q:You sound very confident that they’re going to go all the way.
A:If I could predict that far in the future, I probably would have made out like a bandit. I had a quick chat with the coach and he’s optimistic. I’m looking forward to the first game and looking forward to the many other sports teams in the course of the year. We’ve got this wonderful facility opening up soon that I think we’re all looking forward to. I’m particularly looking forward to the pool.
Q:Are you a big swimmer?
A:I wouldn’t call myself a big swimmer, but I do paddle around to get my exercise. It’s definitely nice that it’s (on) my walk between home and office.