Poor Tom Williams. Queen's University's principal is learning first hand how difficult it is to govern a university of some 20,000 students. More than a small city, Queen's is a macrocosm of clans, each carrying with it a set of assumptions, self-referential images, and aspirations.
These often coalesce around long-standing cultural institutions and practices, including football, the Queen's bands, parking issues, and, of course, the annual Homecoming extravaganza. Other venues where students find meaning are the campus radio station CFRC, the Queen's Journal and Golden Words newspapers, drama, the huge intramural athletics program, and - yes -the bottom of a beer bottle from Thursday through Saturday nights.
Not a few of these young people, who at times appear to demand the right to party hard because their parents pay huge sums into the local economy, find an initial step in their first year toward alcoholism. From orientation through Homecoming, Queen's stakes its reputation as a world-class party school.
Williams knows that there are students who have no idea why they are studying at university - an epiphany, if they are fortunate, that will come by the third or fourth year. Other students are funnelled early into faculties (engineering, commerce) that define their identity for life. One wishes that these students might have more flexibility in course choices, lest they become overly specialized at an early age.
In any event, students find political representation in the Alma Mater Society, the Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Society and a huge variety of faculty-specific groups. The principal knows that all of these groups also have an elevated sense of self-worth, in keeping with Queen's students allegedly being the best and brightest high school graduates in the province.
Then there is the faculty, brilliant according to all accounts in the administration's newspaper, the Queen's Gazette, what with their million-dollar research grants and myriad publications that few read except other specialists. Time was that teaching students well comprised the main goal for faculty, but in these days of decreased public spending on higher education and increasingly privatized sources of revenue, faculty feel pressed, squeezed and pushed away from teaching as a calling. In any event, Queen's administration looks to its history of dour Presbyterianism while the faculty burn their vanity bonfires.
Williams knows well that his university staff and faculty feel threatened by current economic exigencies and that the faculty's decision a decade ago to unionize was necessary to guarantee them the option of bargaining collectively for their respective versions of the common good -the former to achieve security, the administration to ensure that faculty did not break the bank with claims to health and hospital insurance, drug claims and dental care. Bargaining sessions have proved fruitful for both sides, despite having much in common with marathon sumo wrestling. University staff, meanwhile, are not unionized, and, many observers feel, have been taken for granted for a millennium. Staff currently are negotiating for possible unionization with the Steelworkers (nice fit!), so stay tuned for another player to join the mix.
To skip over the Queen's board of trustees would be a huge oversight. This august group, of course, placed Williams in his current position and acceded to his request not to be deemed an interim or acting principal, but a principal in his own right. The board meets a couple of times a year and considers both good news (honorary degrees and the like) and bad news (declining public revenues and police reports on Homecoming). The board now boasts student, staff and faculty representation, so it is no longer in a class with Rome's College of Cardinals. At last glance, the board did not, like the Vatican when a new Pope is being chosen, emit white or black smoke to herald big decisions (such as choosing the new principal), but merely tried not to allow information to leak on key issues. Indeed, the board has done pretty well in the latter role, albeit still having to face up to the fallout from the problematic appointment of Williams' predecessor, Karen Hitchcock.
There are a few more groups that comprise the Queen's community, however tenuously, and Williams no doubt wishes they did not. They include the hundreds of university students from Ontario and beyond who join the hundreds of local high school and upper-elementary school students who think that the Aberdeen Street Homecoming party is a "neat thing." Then there is the Kingston Police department, backed by OPP and law-enforcement officers from surrounding communities; landlords who rent homes ranging from luxury digs to hovels to students; neighbours such as the Sydenham Ward Ratepayers Association, whose members give thanks for the falling temperatures and first snow that chase partying students inside for a few months; and, most recently, vigilantes such as Don Rogers and his Save Our Neighbourhood people. Rogers and company were on campus last week campaigning against the demon rum with as much verve as Carrie Nation and Susan B. Anthony more than a century ago.
So there is the short list of the melange that comprises Queen's. What holds it together? I'm not certain that there is any such glue. Certainly one point here is to suggest that Williams has little personal power to bring about change on his own. The alumni community, to which he has now appealed for guidance, will give diverse views on Homecoming. So Williams' initiative is not a case of passing the buck. It is an attempt to get another key Queen's clan on board.
Once the process is completed, Williams will need to dust off a sign that once sat on U. S. President Harry S. Truman's desk: "The Buck Stops Here." Yes, Tom, eventually it does.
Geoff Smith taught history at Queen's for 37 years. This article appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard October 22, 2008.