Daniel Woolf reflects on highs and lows of decade as Queen’s University principal
Daniel Woolf believes he’s leaving Queen’s University in better shape than when he took on the demanding job of being the school’s principal a decade ago.
Woolf, who recently turned 60, will officially wrap up his second term as the 20th principal and vice-chancellor of the stately learning institution at the end of June.
He says the decision not to seek another five-year term in the job, which paid him $410,000 in 2018, was partly a matter of principle and an effort to not overstay his welcome.
“There’s an old saying: ‘It’s better to leave a party an hour too early than a minute too late,'” said Woolf, adding: “I wanted to finish my career off as a professor rather than an academic administrator.”
Woolf was no stranger to Queen’s when he landed the top job in 2009, having graduated from the school in 1980 with a bachelor of arts honours degree in history.
But his early years as principal were about more than schmoozing with donors and watching the varsity football Gaels win a Vanier Cup.
“We have a terrific Canadian brand. We have some of the smartest, brightest, most energized and engaged students across the country, but no institution is perfect,” he said.
Woolf says he assumed the job at a time of profound changes and challenges: the university was mired in deficit and had poor labour relations. Rowdy student street parties frustrated the town council and residents, while campus racism and mental health issues emerged as flashpoints that needed immediate attention.
“There are many things we can continue to do better and some things we, frankly, have gotten wrong,” he said.
In a wide-ranging interview with Global News, Woolf spoke about student deaths linked to mental health issues and alcohol during a period that he refers to as his darkest years as campus leader.
“It was a horrendous year in 2010-11, with a number of student suicides and two accidental deaths where alcohol was involved,” Woolf said.
He describes that period as a wake-up call to be more proactive to address mental health issues among the 18- to 25-year-old demographic, which accounts for most of the Queen’s student population, noting that counselling services have decentralized and now have closer ties to faculties.
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As for alcohol, Woolf believes the university and the City of Kingston have made great strides to put a lid on the often boisterous and costly street parties of the past. The university cancelled homecoming in the fall for a few years, while the city recently brought in a nuisance party bylaw that gives authorities more power to break up large gatherings on private property.
“It’s a university town with a high density of young people so you are going to get parties. I think we’ve managed to reduce the risk factor,” said Woolf.
He points out that off-campus parties on St. Patrick’s Day may be more problematic than homecoming weekend.
“The problem is not solved but is definitely better. I think we’re trending in the right direction,” he said.
The academic-turned-administrator says the pressure to “do better” is always at the forefront of his mind, including when it comes to taking a more proactive role regarding issues around cultural sensitivity and lack of cultural awareness.
Such concerns exploded in 2016 after a student costume party with a “countries of the world” theme sparked outrage over stereotypes and racism. Some people dressed as Viet Cong guerillas, Middle Eastern sheikhs, Mexicans with sombreros, dreadlocked Rastafarians and Buddhist monks.
Woolf faced heat for his reaction to the controversy and his decision not to expel any students — a decision he stands by today.
“They may not have wanted to hear it, but I do regard it as a trivial offence. I do not believe for an instant that the students were being racists. They were, however, being very insensitive,” he said.
During a recent farewell dinner, Woolf referred to Queen’s as a “great institution, not a perfect one,” especially when dealing with ongoing issues surrounding inclusivity, diversity and free speech on campus.
On the financial side, Woolf says the province’s recent 10 per cent rollback of tuition will impact the university’s bottom line. Tuition accounts for roughly 70 per cent of its revenue.
“The good news is we’re able to weather that reasonably well. Ten years ago, that would’ve been an existential threat,” he said.
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Woolf says university finances are in good shape to weather the financial storm, partly due to a new budget system that makes faculties more incentive-based and entrepreneurial.
“It’s going to make us trim our sails a little bit and not collapse our sails,” he explained.
Woolf also says the university leans on its alumni to finance new projects, noting that $640 million was raised during the school’s last campaign.
Looking for donor dollars has occupied about one-third of his time, something he prefers more than the politics that come with the job.
He says the high point of his job came early in his second term.
“In the same week, we named the Smith School of Business and the fantastic $50-million gift from Stephen Smith, and four days later, while I was travelling overseas, I got word of Art McDonald’s receipt of the Nobel Prize for physics,” said Woolf. “It would be pretty tough to top that.”
He says the university will be in good hands with incoming principal Patrick Deane, who served as a vice-principal at Queen’s a few years ago.
“I will probably sit down and offer a few tips on what’s changed since he’s been away. But I think he’ll do just fine,” said Woolf.
Woolf’s last official function as principal won’t be in Kingston or even in Canada. Instead, he’s planning to be at the Queen’s campus in Sussex, England — the Bader International Study Centre at Herstmonceux Castle — to attend a 25th anniversary of the centre’s first graduating class on June 29 and 30.
“Literally, my last minutes as principal will be in the U.K. and probably in the castle,” Woolf said.
As he enters his final weeks as principal, the London, England-born administrator says he’s looking forward to hitting the books.
Woolf plans to spend time doing more research into his specialty — Tudor and Stuart British history — and then resuming his history professor duties at Queen’s in a couple of years.
“That’s how I started,” he said. “That’s how I plan to finish.”
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