Principal Woolf’s Report to the University Senate (24 January 2012)

This is the text of the Principal’s address to Senate on 24 January 2012, as subsequently posted on the Office of the Principal website:

January 24, 2012

Speaking notes

Check against delivery

Welcome back everyone and a happy new year.

For my first report to Senate of 2012, I would like to deviate from my usual relay of information and regular occurrences to share with you my sense of where we are, post-Academic Plan exercise, and what should happen next.

I will be revising today’s remarks into a document, which I hope to circulate within a few weeks. As yet untitled, this might be regarded as a kind of ‘Where Next 2.0’, or reflections on how we may achieve some of the goals laid out so well by last year’s Academic Planning Task Force and, previously, by the 2010 Academic Writing Team. It will be further informed by all that I have heard and observed over the past 28 months since my term as Principal began.

While I have not yet visited with every academic department or school (although I’m very close!), I have nonetheless received some reasonably clear and consistent messages—in some cases with a remarkable degree of coherence across faculties—as to the challenges we all face as academics, and the challenges faced by the staff who support our work. Similar messages have come from our students, though obviously from a different perspective.

In addition to departmental visits, I have had many meetings, coffees and lunches with individual faculty members, with groups of students, with representatives of departmental and unit support staff, both administrative and technical. And of course a great deal of my time has been spent consulting with officials and other persons external to the university, including alumni and the various levels of government.

I remain convinced that things must change at Queen’s in order for Queen’s not only to maintain the quality of the education experience we provide our students but also to get even better. There is no going back to the ways we did things 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago.

I remain equally convinced that there is a strong consensus as to Queen’s mission: to provide Canada’s best residential-university education and experience to outstanding students of the world.  The notion of a ‘balanced academy’, among the various ideas discussed over the past two years of planning and consultation, has met with pretty widespread agreement. So does our commitment to our students, undergraduate, professional and graduate.

At the same time, there is deep and profound concern, which I must say that I share, that our ability to carry out our academic mission has been compromised. I observe this as a professor in my home department: every year I do rotating teaching from section to section of one of the first year history courses. I have just concluded this year’s round. The sections are bigger, and there are fewer of them. I caution against assuming class size and faculty/student ratio are in themselves indicators of decline. What matters more is what goes on in the classroom and its outcome at the end of the course, the end of the degree, and five, 10, 20 etc years out.

Many departments have been responding to financial challenges in creative ways in order to preserve what to them are the most urgent priorities. Some have been very creative, for instance, in developing alternative forms of delivery. Nonetheless the inescapable conclusion is that we remain under duress, with some very prominent indicators such as the recent suspension of admissions to the program in Fine Art.

The external context…

One of my roles as Principal is to provide our Board of Trustees with frank and candid advice. In my report to them last year, I asserted quite bluntly that academic quality was being compromised by our budget deficit. I continue to deliver that message, as you’ll read in my December strategic update to the Trustees which is posted to my website.

I take equally seriously the role of the Principal, famously described by one of my predecessors as the ‘narrow isthmus’ between Board and Senate, to speak frankly to Senate about our situation. And in this light I would now like to spend a few minutes updating you on the external context.

Senators will be aware, and if you are not, you should be, that Queen’s is not alone in being under duress. The entire Ontario university system, unsustainable in its current form, stands on the brink of a crisis, and we face the possibility of significant and substantive changes to the ways in which the sector has operated for fifty years. Universities are not usually portrayed positively in the mainstream media. They are portrayed as elitist institutions, resistant to change, unresponsive to changing public needs, inflexible and guild-like in their protection of tradition, and unaccountable to government or the taxpayer. Much time at COU, AUCC and the U15 group of research universities has been spent discussing how we can modulate or change this perception.

I also have to tell you that the perceptions of certain prominent newspaper columnists are shared in the corridors of Queen’s Park and, to the degree that it involves itself in university operations matters, of Parliament Hill as well. We are frequently contrasted with the colleges that are seen as more flexible, quicker to adapt, and more responsive to the needs of the employer marketplace.

We face, consequently, ever greater scrutiny. Apart from the steadily increasing demands for accountability to the provincial Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (TCU) on a nuts-and-bolts level over recent years (how we spend our money, and where), we have recently seen the introduction of a number of new measures, with further initiatives lying ahead.

The Office of the Auditor-General of Ontario will be investigating how teaching is evaluated at select universities (I do not know whether Queen’s will be one of them, but whether it is or not, the eventual report will affect all 20 of the province’s universities when it’s released at the end of 2012). That, I fear, may be just the beginning.

I do not know in detail what will be in the upcoming report of the Commission on Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, headed by Don Drummond, current Matthews Fellow in the School of Policy Studies—it is expected to be released some time in February– but I can tell you that the likelihood of universities being exempt from its recommendations for reform are between slim and none.

At the same time, agencies such as HEQCO and university-reform authors such as Ian Clark and David Trick are being widely heeded by government, and especially by TCU’s very energetic and reform-minded new Minister, the Hon. Glen Murray.

We may weep at the riverside, bewail our situation and rend our clothes, but this is the reality we face, and we will need to take steps to deal with it before we are forced to respond in ways we may all find unpalatable.

The financial situation, externally, is also no better. The province continues to struggle with a significant deficit, and with economic growth stagnant or very slow, Queen’s Park will be looking, post-Drummond, to make major cuts across the board. Even though our Premier remains committed to protecting health and education, we will not be immune. The level of per-student grant support—the BIUs we receive—remains the low outlier within Canada, with only PEI in our range.

I contrast the $8,233 funding-per-student received by Ontario universities with the $19,142 in Newfoundland and Labrador, $15,790 in Alberta or $9,213 in Nova Scotia, which used to be at the bottom. This situation is not going to change in the short term, and we are also facing uncertainty in the tuition framework which, while restrictive, has at least afforded a measure of predictability over the past few years. Thanks to recent collective agreements with QUFA, CUPE and other affected bargaining units on campus, we have made substantive fixes to our pension plan on a ‘go-forward’ basis. But the burden of past debt and the spectre of massive solvency payments two years hence, remain. And the situation isn’t helped by record low interest rates that have limited pension fund growth and affected our earnings from the Queen’s Pooled Endowment Fund and Pooled Investment Fund, earnings which annually form a significant portion of the university’s operating budget and which support particular activities such as teaching, research and student support.

Ok, so much for the bad news…

Now some good news. Over the past two years we’ve made great progress as an institution in moving towards a culture of planning; Senate’s enthusiastic embracing at its last meeting of a regular cycle of this is encouraging.

We are midway through a process of reviewing the composition of Senate, and the Board is nearly through its exercise in reducing its numbers to become more efficient and effective.

The Academic Plan, which I have always resisted calling, in the corporate or government model, a ‘strategic plan’, will now be the hub around which other university and faculty-level planning exercises occur, including the soon-to-be completed Strategic Research Plan, a new campus plan, ongoing enrolment planning—a novelty, centrally, at Queen’s — and an internationalization strategy.

Operations in many administrative units have been streamlined. Reflecting the transfer of many responsibilities to the Provost, I will be downsizing my own office over the course of the next year with personnel moving from my office to other areas. A recent review of the University Secretariat has suggested some useful ways of streamlining its business. In the faculties and schools, intelligent measures have been taken, such as the recent merger of the basic medical sciences and that of most of the language programs. Vice-Principal (Finance and Administration) Davis has been asked to find further administrative savings through means such as strategic procurement (in plain English, buying in bulk where we can, across the university, and from preferred vendors who competitively bid to get our business). And we are heading into a fundraising campaign next fall with a clearly articulated set of priorities identified by the Provost and Deans, working with Vice-Principal Tom Harris and his Advancement team.

Within the ranks of the professoriate, we continue to score well in aggregate measures such as research intensity and number of awards per faculty member. Our graduate students and postdocs are well-placed following their time with us, some in academe or industry, others in different careers. We continue to offer, outside the classroom, an overall exceptional student experience, which was reflected in last fall’s Globe and Mail survey of student opinion. And our students continue to amaze us all with their seemingly endless initiative and enthusiasm.  We are able to continue, for a second year, Vice-Principal Liss’s very successful experiment with undergraduate student summer research awards, and Vice-Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Ann Tierney will soon be launching both a co-curricular transcript and a first year ‘Queen’s reads’ project in partnership with the Kingston WritersFest.

But, as we knew when we embarked on the Academic Planning exercise, we still have work to do, inside the classroom, and often outside of it too. To return to an earlier point, we should embrace with enthusiasm the core suggestions of the Task Force: the integration of teaching and learning with research; the diversification of our curriculum toward greater inclusivity (itself a major component of increased internationalization, what the APTF wisely called ‘internationalization at home’); the facilitation of interdisciplinarity experiences which build on reinvigorated disciplines; a will to innovate in teaching with a view to equipping students with the intellectual skills that they need to succeed, both in our programs and beyond; and commitment to providing a healthy community for both students and employees.

So: we do seem to know what the ‘Where’ is in ‘Where Next?’ The Academic Plan has in broad strokes told us what that ‘Where’ looks like. The looming question now is, ‘How do we get there?’ Clearly, more than good will and a community of interest are required. If we are to realize the goals of the Academic Plan, we must ensure that we resource it properly. To do so means conducting a fairly thorough overhaul, which I have asked our Provost to undertake for the 2013-14 fiscal year, of our internal allocation mechanisms. At the moment, these are neither transparent nor rational, as the Academic Writing Team of 2010 noted in its report, Imagining the Future (ItF goal 5.2). They are the fruit of years of historical bilateral deals, and they do not reflect levels of activity, which differ from department to department even within the same faculty.  While the current system doubtless made sense at the time it was introduced, it no longer serves us well. As King James I once said of a work by Francis Bacon—please excuse the reference back to my home area of 17th century history—’it is like the peace of God, which surpasseth all human understanding’. The Provost can better explain what he has in mind in due course and I do not want these remarks to fix on budgetary issues except insofar as they impinge on the values of the community.

But I will say that it is imperative that we move to a system where departments are more equitably funded for the level of teaching and research activities they undertake and in which money in support of teaching, quite simply, follows the student. This in turn will, even in straitened circumstances, provide an incentive to departments, schools and Faculties to pursue the goals of the Academic Plan and to be responsive to University-wide objectives.

Given that it is the start of a new calendar year, I would like to close with some exciting news. As I mentioned at the start of these remarks, I have heard some consistent messages in the course of my departmental meetings over the past couple of years. The first is that, if we are to expand our number of international graduate students, especially in the face of increasing competition for operating grants from all three Research Councils, we need to revisit the funding available to recruit top-tier international doctoral students. I have asked the Provost to work with the Vice-Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies to revisit this issue and to institute a number of Principal’s International Doctoral awards over the coming year; these will be a supplement to the current Graduate Studies International Tuition awards.  Details will be posted by the Provost shortly.

Secondly, Senate has signaled, as have most of the departments I have visited, that faculty renewal is an urgent priority, not only in the replenishment of our numbers, but also in ensuring that we can hire the very best of the next generation of scholars. Without prejudicing the results of any future Senate Task Force on the issue of Faculty renewal, I do believe that one measure could be taken right now which, in a small way, will help. I heard over and over that one initiative that is much missed is the Queen’s National Scholar program, suspended by Principal Williams in early 2009 in response to that year’s budget deficit. The QNS has been a signature program in faculty renewal for many years at Queen’s. With some adjustments, it can be adapted to support the values and goals of the Academic Plan and the impending Research Plan. Accordingly, I am today announcing that the QNS program will be reinstated this year, with a view to having the first two new Queen’s National Scholars in post for July 2013.  More details will be communicated in the coming months.

No one is more aware than I that the return of the QNS is a drop in the considerable bucket of our needs, but I do hope that it will provide some sign that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that that light is not an express train coming in our direction.  I do hope that this is another good step forward, and that as progress on deficit reduction continues, we will be able to increase our rate of faculty renewal.

That, members of Senate concludes my remarks for today I look forward to any comments you may have now, or in the next few weeks, as I transform  many of the thoughts expressed here today into a more formal document for the university community.

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