Queen's University Principal Dr. Karen R. Hitchcock at Summerhill, the oldest building at Queen's. Hitchcock is currently under review for re-appointment, and in March 2008 the Alma Mater Society voted unanimously not to support her. (Harrison Smith for The Globe and Mail)
Construction cranes dot the spring sky in Kingston.
Queen's University is on a multimillion-dollar building binge that is set to last until long after current undergrads collect their degrees.
This weekend, as the countdown to finals begins in earnest for students, the clock is also ticking for the university's principal, Karen Hitchcock. A special committee is expected to decide early next week whether she will stay for a second five-year term. The outcome of that meeting has the potential to send as big a shockwave through the tight-knit Queen's community as the blasts required to move the limestone for the new recreation centre.
Dr. Hitchcock, in an interview this week, would not discuss her reappointment or the comments of her critics. “There is nothing to respond to,” she said. “This is a confidential, personnel matter.”
“Unprecedented,” is the word several faculty and alumni use to sum up what's happening at Queen's. Last month, undergraduate leaders made public their unvarnished views about the principal and opposing her reappointment.
Dr. Hitchcock has shown “a failure to understand, take action on and be engaged in the issues that are of most importance to students,” said a motion passed in an open meeting and sent to a special committee charged with reviewing the principal's reappointment – a review that in the past has been pretty much a rubber stamp.
This time, the outcome is by no means assured. Dr. Hitchcock, 65, has stated her desire to stay, but those familiar with the situation say the committee is divided. People familiar with the discussions said a weekend meeting last month failed to produce a final recommendation, and so the group will reconvene in the coming days. If the committee, comprising faculty, staff, alumni and students, rejects a second term, many expect Dr. Hitchcock to offer her resignation immediately, rather than wait for her term to end next year.
There is talk on campus of what might happen in those circumstances. Queen's approached former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge months ago, sources say, to step in as chancellor for the retiring Charles Baillie. Nothing has been announced, but such a high-profile appointment, combined with other measures, could be put forward at the same time as the university makes an announcement about the principal.
How did it come to this?
Dr. Hitchcock's tenure at Queen's has been troubled since she was appointed in July, 2004. Those familiar with the original search describe her as a compromise, brought in quickly, an American with no ties to Queen's or to Canada. Many interviewed for this article say she has never been in sync with the university's unique culture, which draws generations of grads to campus for homecoming, keeps the school at the top of campus ratings and helps fill the coffers with alumni dollars.
“It was not a fit. It think it was a shoehorn,” says Geoff Smith, an emeritus professor of history.
That situation was made worse by her absence from campus because her husband was injured in a car accident shortly after she took up the job, and allegations, since dismissed, of unethical conduct involving development contracts when she was president of the State University of New York at Albany.
“I don't think this is a sin of commission, I think it is a sin of omission and more style over substance,” says marketing professor Ken Wong, a long-time faculty member and Queen's graduate.
Asked to describe the principal, Prof. Wong says he has never met her, aside from a few handshakes at receptions. He says that is partly a reflection of the growing size of Queen's and the changing role of the university. Still, Queen's has traditionally maintained a strong link between those running the school and students. That, says Prof. Wong, is what has set it apart.
When asked what has the campus so riled with its principal, most professors and students talk about what she hasn't done. The award dinners and city council meetings she did not attend, the calls and notes that never came, her absence from homecoming events and other key functions.
“There seems to be this screen between students and the administration,” says Elamin Abdelmahmoud, president of the Arts and Science Undergraduate Society, just back from a lunch with Dr. Hitchcock, one of several meetings with students that have been arranged since March.
Others, such as David Waugh, the head of the commerce society, see this as too little too late. Mr. Waugh, who moved the motion by student government, said the message it sends is pretty clear. It's up to the committee now, he said, “to make the best possible decision for the future of Queen's University.”
In the midst of this debate, the growing bill for the school's massive new student facility is emerging as a focus for dissatisfaction with leadership at the university.
Cost over-runs for the first phase of the $230-million Queen's Centre have hit $40-million, forcing the university to find savings though material and design changes. The second and third stages are under review. With fundraising already expected to cover $130-million of the project, extra costs would have to be added to the expected $60-million in debt. That has left many, including the faculty association, wondering how the costs of that debt would hit operating budgets.
Dr. Hitchcock said the new centre – which will include several gyms, a pool, a field house and a rink as well as student meeting areas and a new home for the school of kinesiology – will be “the heart and soul of campus.” Cost over-runs, she said, are always a risk with construction. “They happen,” she said. “There are things you can and can't predict.”
No matter what the outcome of next week's meetings, Dr. Hitchcock's tenure is a textbook case of what some say can happen when an outside leader fails to take the pulse of an organization. Some wonder if, as the first woman to lead Queen's, her experience has been the result of failure to crack the old boys' club. Others say she arrived on campus with her vision of raising the profile of Queen's internationally and failed to realize the importance of taking ownership of local issues such as street parties that get out of hand.
Long-time members of the Queen's community also worry that the quality that has set the school apart may be slipping away. Prof. Smith, who came to Queen's more than four decades ago, worries that in the hunt for research dollars, graduate students and an international profile, the school is diminishing its role in undergraduate education. “It's in the process, if it's not careful, of losing its soul,” he says.http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080412.whitchcock12/BNStory/National/