Queen's President: quality has been "compromised" - Macleans.ca

Queen’s President: quality has been “compromised”

“Unthinkable” to be compared to Waterloo, McMaster, Guelph


A leaked letter written by Queen’s University’s principal reveals a man who is worried about the school’s slipping reputation, its upcoming labour strife and ongoing financial struggles — which he beleives can only be overcome by more corporate partnerships. The letter was supposed by be a private list of his goals for the upcoming year, but it found its way onto Facebook and Twitter.

Daniel Woolf’s candour on the school’s changing reputation is most striking.

“At Queen’s, where the financial situation is particularly acute, the quality that once defined the institution is clearly being compromised,” he wrote to William Young, who chairs the Board of Trustees. “It would have been unthinkable 20 years ago that the quality reputation of undergraduate education at Queen’s would be challenged by Waterloo and McMaster …to say nothing of Guelph – but it is clearly happening.”

He goes on to say, “it is time to leverage our assets to achieve international recognition… the distinctive small-town Ivy League experience of a Queen’s education with its excellence in both teaching and research, should be embraced – it is this cachet that attracts students from around the world to Cornell and Dartmouth in the U.S. In Canada Queen’s is arguably the only university with this pedigree.”

He also says that the school must “attract many more international students (which is the longer term key both to greater revenue and greater global reputation).”

Then he suggests that the long-term financial situation will only be improved through more partnerships with corporations, citing Stanford’s partnership with IBM and MIT’s partnership with Nokia as examples. More corporate cash is needed because: “the past two decades have seen a complete reversal of the funding model for Ontario universities: 20 years ago 74% of our operating budget was provided by the province; today, that figure has flipped to 47%.

He also suggests that his Principal’s Commission on Mental Health could be leveraged for funding. “It crosses directly into fund-raising, as there are corporations with a keen interest in this area (including Bell, which has already funded a Chair in the area (to be announced publicly in the fall).”

He does see some light on the horizon regarding government funding — but, in doing so, admits that quick growth has compromised the school’s quality.

“The good news is that Queen’s may not have to grow dramatically just to get what little provincial funding there is. In late May, at a speech I attended in Toronto, the Hon. John Milloy, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, announced plans of replacing some per-student funding with performance-based support… We may revise our growth projections to take advantage of such a change, should it occur.

Finally, he writes that his number one goal for the year is to “negotiate successful labour group agreements,” because he antcipates six months of labour unrest. He added that, “I appreciate the Board’s understanding that these disruptions, should they occur, will be unpleasant and potentially reputational-damaging in the short term, but they may be a necessary step in order to achieve success in salary restraint and pension reform.”

Near the end, he writes, “I would anticipate a summary of this document, duly adjusted for a public audience.”

The letter was posted by Ashley Ratcliffe to her Facebook in a “note” and then was circulated on Twitter.

Queen’s communications director Ellie Sadinsky told the Queen’s Journal that Principal Woolf learned that the letter had been leaked and circulated through his Twitter account. He defended the letter in a tweet to former Engineering Society President* Victoria Pleavin, saying “This is my annual ‘goals’ doc to the Board—a normal process; negotiated labour agreements are a priority, as stated.”

*This post originally named Victoria Pleavin as the president of the Engineering Society. In fact, the current president is Derrick Dodgson. We regret the error.


Queen’s President: quality has been “compromised”

  1. “In Canada Queen’s is arguably the only university with this pedigree.” Clearly a letter written by, and addressed to, those who confuse pedigree and excellence. Such people can rest assured: its pedigree, being a matter of what has occurred in the past, will be Queen’s to cherish forever.

    • I agree. But, Woolf speaks for Woolf, not the students, staff or faculty.

  2. “The imperative to reduce the deficit at all costs within a short time frame is a major obstacle to completion of the HR rebuild, just as it is inhibiting the completion of QUASR.”

    So an HR rebuild and the QUASR mess are more important than students staff or faculty.

  3. An incredibly important detail in your final paragraph is somewhat out of date.


    Derrick Dodgson
    Queen’s Engineering Society

    • Mr Dodgson,

      Given the damning nature of what your university’s President said, I am frankly shocked that your only comment to the above, at least in this forum, is one to bolster your own credentials. Are you not elected to be the face of Engineering students at Queen’s?

      As someone who has never met you, my first response you your comment is: ‘Well that’s a person who took on that position for himself and himself alone.’ I am not saying that is what you’re actually about (although, if it is, you wouldn’t be the first person to get into politics for that reason). I don’t know you. However, if you are representing people, it would be helpful if you actually said something, anything, of substance.

      I urge you to comment on the actual issue. In case you had not noticed, the value of your degree and of those you represent was just been attacked by the leader of your University.

      • Mr Me,

        Please rest assured that my comment above was made entirely in jest and in no way is an attempt to “bolster my own credentials”.

        On the actual issue, I have read Principal Woolf’s letter (please note his actual office) and am aware of quite a bit of context surrounding it. I don’t necessarily agree with every stance within it, but he has every right and responsibility to set goals such as these and justify them to the Board of Trustees. The fact that people have attempted to use this breach of confidence as fuel for the labour negotiations is quite disappointing to be honest.

        Any job action at Queen’s would have a very negative impact on the Engineering Society, and a large part of my work over the past several weeks has been regarding contingency planning for our various operations. I hope that the parties reach an agreement which avoids a work stoppage, and also allows Queen’s to continue to be a leading university in this country for years to come. In the meantime, I will continue to plan for all possible eventualities on behalf of my constituents.

        Also, to Mr. Dehaas and the people of Macleans on Campus: I am in no way offended by the original error. My comment was made in part due to several similar incidents which my predecessor Ms. Pleavin and I have taken in good humour. I apologize for anyone mistaking my sarcasm for true offence.

      • @”Me”:
        Relax. Mr. Dodgson was only pointing out a factual error that Maclean’s made. Many engineering students would probably view it as unwise for the President of the Queen’s Engineering Society to be so informal as to respond to this important issue on a blog.

    • “Incredibly” important? Pah!

      I sincerely hope that wasn’t the real Derrick Dodgson posting there.

  4. That’s a post that makes people at Waterloo, Guelph and McMaster feel real special (I work at Waterlood). I guess some are worms, and some evolved.

  5. No wonder this school gets a reputation for snobbery and elitism. You rank below many Canadian schools (including the aforementioned McMaster and Waterloo, and other schools like UofT, UBC, UWO and McGill) on a number of international and domestic rankings. And for good reason. While your school has stuck to trying to maintain its culture of self-righteousness and ‘school spirit’, other schools have put money into much more valuable things (i.e. the thing most people go to school for, a good quality education).

    Get your heads out of your asses Gaels. You’re in Canada, not the United States. You’re not an Ivy league school, and never have been. And until your school produces quality research and education, quit trying to belittle other schools from your pedestal of former glory.

    • The principal speaks for the principal. He does not speak for Queen’s: not for the students, staff or faculty. As regards numbers, get your facts straight.

    • I can appreciate that this article confirms some arrogance on the part of the principal, but I don’t think its reasonable to believe that every Gael has his head up his/her ass because of it. Many people at Queen’s don’t feel the same way as the principle, arguing that all the students of Queen’s are snobs because the school has a reputation for elitism is like arguing that all Chinese people support totalitarianism because they live in a Communist country. Inter-university rivalry can make people heated, but lets try to be reasonable in discussion.

  6. Wow, Unctious much? Is this Woolf’s way of differentiating Queen’s for HECQO assessments?

  7. I am alarmed by what is happening at Queen’s – and especially the ongoing issues pertaining to labour situation for so many workers across the Queen’s campus. The Queen’s of today is not the Queen’s that I once attended (1997 – 2001) with pride. If Queen’s wants to improve its reputation, it should focus on ensuring that quality student experiences are facilitated through supporting the professors, support staff, librarians, technicians, and maintenance staff who made Queen’s (and continue to struggle to make Queen’s) a fantastic institution.

  8. I attended Queen’s from 2000-2004 and was very happy with my student experience (especially the quality of education). I am, however, extremely concerned that current and future students will not have access to this same high level of education due the ongoing labour issues affecting workers in various fields. All Queen’s employees are integral to the success of the school, including its reputation. As a proud alumna, I urge the Queen’s university administration and Board of Trustees to find a compromise that takes into account the best interests of the students and the reputation of the university.

  9. The 3 unions at Queen’s presently engaged in negotiations with Queen’s administration (QUFA, CUPE, and USW) have prepared and delivered a joint “open letter” response to Principal Woolf’s letter. QUFA has posted both letters: (link removed)

  10. It is interesting that the President of Queen’s is insecure about his school’s public perception. That, of course, does not at all sound like other people I’ve known who have attended Queen’s. :roll:

    Having attended Queen’s, I have two comments:

    1) I think that the “elite university” cachet, apparently ubiquitously coveted, is a snobbish anachronism. In the natural sciences particularly, but increasingly so in the humanities, research is highly focussed, and the large, urban and well-endowed “multiversities” are the ones with the manpower and resources to complete expensive cutting-edge projects. The best universities are no longer like 16th century Cambridge – they are sprawling plate-glass corporations employing a large quantity of discipline-specific experts, and their intellectual output is measured in citations and grant money, not rowing-matches or political pedigree. Size and money matter more than oak-panelled common rooms and pet affectations.

    If you go to the UK, you can see the difference between large, well-funded institutions that are top-notch (Imperial, UCL, Warwick, etc…) and tiny, questionable ones – in Canada, we hardly have any difference between institutions. No one seriously doubts the equivalence of degrees from most Canadian universities.

    2) Queens’ “little Oxford” mentality is really the only difference between it and UWO, Mac, Waterloo, etc… and it probably does more harm than good. Of course, there are more rich kids, fatter endowed scholarships, cheesy secret societies and all the trappings of its American role-models, but I can’t imagine the actual substance of the degree being any different than it would have been anywhere else. We all read the same edition of Plato’s Republic, and we all write papers on the same ideas within it. From my subjective viewpoint, I would say that Carleton (which I also attended) had more rigorous programme and a much harder marking scheme that that at Queen’s (or at least I thought it was so). Queen’s students quickly learn how prestigious their alma mater is; this is a foolish distraction from real learning.

    All of this isn’t to say that Queen’s is a bad school; certainly it isn’t, and I am grateful that I learned many things there. But there is a kind of offputting snobbery endemic to it that is neither warranted nor becoming. Get over yourself Queen’s – you are one of Canada’s many middleweights, with your own particular charm, but neither superior nor inferior to your peers.

    • Amen. Well said.

    • Queen’s remains the leader internationally in a number of core intellectual properties.

  11. One of the most disturbing features in the Principal’s report to the Board of Trustees is the lack of any single word of support for, appreciation of or commendation for the staff and faculty at Queen’s, many of whom have given their lives to the institution and are passionate about supporting it. By contrast, he is very generous in his self-congratulation over his selection of a negotiating team (who seem to have little background in academia) and predictions of his own ability to mend fences later. The impression of ‘us-them’ could hardly have been more strongly demonstrated, and reinforces the sense that bargaining was never in good faith from the very start.

    • Agreed. I find the Principal’s expect ‘6 months of disruption and 6 months to repair the damage’ attitude unbelievably naive at best.

  12. Queens’ has an engineering faculty? LOL

  13. As a student entering his final year at Queen’s, I can only comment in detail on a particular subset of the Queen’s “product”. However, I have thus far received an education that has tidily proven its quality, not just in my own “satisfaction” but by objective results. In my current department (Physics), the blow of budget cuts has been handled not just adeptly, not just without Maclean’s-worthy incendiary comments, but so as to concretely improve the product. Although I am admittedly removed from much of the fanfare of Queen’s culture, I can further attest to the warmth and low-hostility environment in which I study on a day-to-day basis

    It may be that weightier slices of the Queen’s pie have greater obstacles but I am encouraged by many of the actions and purposeful thought taking place there to fortify products which, it should be recalled, already hold up well to any objective measure. True, there remains something of a propensity for inflammatory slips of tongue, mishaps and unfortunate circumstances that paints a portrait of an institution with all the tact of an learned toddler and the structural integrity of Wayside School. As entertaining a portrait as it is, however, I have yet to encounter this wobbly ivory tower in my daily experience. I agree heartily with Steph MacKay’s sentiments and I cringe at how poorly the selected quotes from Woolf’s letter represent my own experience but I simply cannot say I am kept awake at night worrying about the rumored passing of quality education at Queen’s.

  14. A fine example of collegial leadership! Principal Woolf takes pot shots at other universities while plotting against his own faculty and staff! Wouldn’t the time and money spent on planning for a strike/lockout been better invested in educating employees about the university’s financial situation? Wouldn’t it have been better to engage in a frank and open dialogue with employees than pursue a strategy designed to force a labour disruption?

  15. Unfortunately, all of the major college/universities in Canada are experiencing a decrease in quality.

    -Too many students are attending postsecondary for all the wrong reasons and as more people attend and graduate from college/university the quality will obviously diminish.
    -Lack of funding is another problem and it affects quality. The question is how does each college/university handle this issue? foreign students is the obvious answer. But when universities start affiliating with Navantis or Study group International that’s when you’ll start questioning the qualifications of the international students.

    It’s unfortunate that Queens is experiencing this problem and all of the post secondary institutes are, things are only going to get worse.

  16. Queen’s regularly tries to call itself an “Ivy League” university, and pass this off as academic credentials. The American “Ivy League”, the only Ivy League is a sports league affiliation, founded only in the 1950’s and not an academic designation. Use of this term, Ivy League, to bolster the image of Queen’s is quite frankly a copy right infringement. My two children attended both Queen’s and Harvard, and Queen’s is definitely not in the same academic league as Harvard.

    There is an ongoing myth about Queen’s academic standing. Taking a look at the international ratings Queen’s is not in the same league as McMaster or Waterloo. Queen’s is so far below these two institutions that it should not be even mentioned in the same breath. If one wants to see the real historic academic reputation of Queen’s then all one has to do, is look at the school song the Oil Thigh. I am not talking about the crude version that is sung, after the students have been double fisted drinking in bars on Princess Street. Most of the current students are not even aware there is more than one verse and a chorus. The third verse mentions a Captain Curtis and the conquerors of Yale. Guy Curtis did attend Queen’s. He was there for 16 years and never graduated. This in itself speaks volumes about the historic academic reputation of Queen’s. It is true they did beat Yale, once. It was in 1897, and a non-league hockey game between Queen’s and Yale.

    There is one yardstick that defines a universities academic reputation and that is the amount of research grants that a university receives. By this non-arbitrary, non-subjective yardstick Queen’s is not in the same league as McMaster as McMaster’s grants are more than double that of Queen’s. This is one point on which Dan Woolf and I agree, it is unthinkable to compare McMaster with Queen’s.

  17. Some comments here do not make simple logical sense. For example, when comparing numbers, you have to compare the relative sizes of the institutions!

    In my experience of 32 years teaching and research (and as a parent of a Queen’s student), I would say that serious students get a top quality education at Queen’s. As regards other party animals, I simply do not care about them at all. What this letter shows is the plain and simple truth that Woolf and his cronies must go. Education is not a simple business to reward administrators. Queen’s is, after all, a publically supported institution.

  18. As a former Queen’s graduate student (M.A. History, 1996), and a current employee at the University of Guelph (Librarian), I am offended by Principal Woolf’s comments. As a graduate student, I choose Queen’s chiefly because of the program (including financial support) and not based on any supposed trappings of prestige or elitism.

    The notion that Guelph is not in the same league as Queen’s across a broad spectrum of undergraduate degree programs is patently false. One of the reasons Guelph has been so successful in the past decade is the focus that it has placed on support the institution provides to undergraduate students and particularly the first year experience.

    While it is true that all Ontario Universities are under financial strain, I wholeheartedly reject the conclusion (all too similar among many senior University Administrators) that the only solution is further corporatization and privatization on the one hand and attacking employee rights and compensation on the other. There is nothing unique or remarkable in Woolf’s approach to what he views as the problems facing his institution. What is startling is the lack of vision and leadership on display in this letter – what about program revitalization? new partnerships? new areas of research?

    I do note that the one thing that Queen’s excels at within Ontario is Alumni relations and donor support. I wonder how well 6-12 months (probably more) of protracted labour strife will affect alumni support.

  19. As a Queen’s graduate, I’m proud to say I can spell (and use spell-check).

  20. I’ve three comments to make after reading the leaked letter.

    1. One should read the leaked letter in the proper context
    (e.g. a mandate from the Board, the global financial
    problems). As an outsider, I don’t have the life context in
    which Principal Woolf has written the report.

    2. Principal Woolf has a vision for Queen’s. He said, “Queen’s
    should aspire to be the top Canadian university choice for a
    premier educational experience.”

    3. He also said, “I aspire to extend the reach of our reputation to
    attract many more international students.”

  21. Just because we get access to private dicussions must they be shared online? For what purpose? Isn’t one goal of all the post secondary education being discussed here, to encourage debate and discussion which Mr. Woolfe is preparing for?
    Isn;t this letter part of this fellow’s job?
    Faculty – isn’t your job to teach and support the administration in getting the school all the tools you need to do it –like winning future students,classroom space,speciality needs for your area?
    Stop the internal bureaucratic bickering and get on with making sure QUEEN’S remains a place that people want to attend — I loved attending Queens, loved the education I received there (as well as UPEI and U of T) – all institutions offered something special, esp if you concentrated on the real reasons you are there – EDUCATION.
    Well said,Mr. Dodgson..let the man get on with his job.
    Let us not forget “Education” today is big business, not just a worthy place of learning. Labour issues happen in every workplace – people make it so, faculty needs to get over it and do their real work.
    MacLean’s thanks for the opportunity to get folks interested – maybe now they will all work on helping Queen’s (and Mr Woolfe) to do the best job possible.

    PS…MacLeans: — please bring back reviewers and spell check….”becuase he antcipates…”.

  22. ..sorry that would be “private discussions”

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