Having served on faculty for thirty-seven years, I feel privileged in encountering so many fine students along the way. The relationships forged with these young people endure, as the best part of being a professor. Beginning a career with (now Globe and Mail columnist) Jeffrey Simpson and ending it with his daughter Danielle sums up how good students can be.
Nostalgia is a wonderful paintbrush, covering the negative, and accentuating the positive. There was a time not too long ago, when our campus fathers called us the “Harvard of the North,” even though Cambridge is a mere tad south of Kingston. Given the alcoholic orgies of Orientation and Homecoming, I responded with “Dartmouth of the North,” a more apt description, inasmuch as Belushi, Akroyd & Co. filmed “Animal House” there. Now, with the arrival of the current Principal, we are the “SUNY-Albany of the North.”
But we are none of these things: We (the royal We, of course) are Queen’s—unique in some ways, very much part of general North American trends in others. Our high-powered faculty, with especially strong medical, business, legal, and engineering components, and boasting consistently high rankings in popular magazine and news polls, suggest that all is excellent. And excellent was the mantra heard most around here during my tenure—so often, in fact, I wondered what it meant.
In the past four decades the university has become more specialized, increasingly focused in its value system on faculty research and grantsmanship, and more than ever in thrall to corporate and private sources of fiscal support. Accompanying this privatization, we behold the metastatic spread of administration, which tends not to facilitate community but to intensify feelings of isolation and alienation.
A decade ago I knew the problem of bureaucracy had become terminal when the university announced the new position of VP Human Resources, at the very time that a toilet on the second floor of Watson Hall overflowed. We had a new VP, but we could not find a plumber, so we fixed it ourselves. That incident proved that administratium, the heaviest self-perpetuating element known to science, had become a Queen’s hallmark.
(To remedy the immediate issue I immediately appointed my canine friend, Tuborg the Dog, Vice Principal of Plumbing. We never had a problem again during Tuborg’s lifetime, but before he passed to his reward in August 2000 he whispered to me that Queen’s might consider strengthening its faculty and plumbers rather than adding deans and VPs).
So what to do to make a fine university “better”? The following suggestions—modest proposals all (some in the spirit of Dean Jonathan Swift’s famous suggestion to eat babies in times of famine)—would strengthen the character of the institution, try to achieve more community, attempt to revivify its intellectual life, and confront some of the ethical dilemmas that daily face all of us, in and outside the allegedly ivory tower.
A major concern in the Arts and Science curriculum is the number of courses students must take to graduate. Too often, their experience becomes, first, an invitation to specialization at an early stage, then existence on a treadmill writing paper after paper, running like a gerbil on a flywheel. Too often, TAs and the Profs who do read the papers read them haphazardly. We need fewer courses for the graduation requirement, to give students and professors more of a chance to reflect and actually think about what they are doing and why they are doing it. Sixteen courses would suffice for graduation.
CRC chairs at both tiers suck resources not just from government, but also from faculty sources. All CRCs should teach a course in their specialty every two years, to a group of twenty outstanding freshman who would sign up or be assigned to these high-powered seminars. Research, after all, should inform teaching. And we do need help in the first year.
All incoming students should have to pass an examination in written English—something like the Subject A requirement at Berkeley, before being allowed to take upper-year courses in Arts and Science, Commerce, Engineering, anything. The writing of clear and sinewy prose remains the university’s prime goal. To lose it—and we are losing it—will end the standing of the university as a seat of critical learning. One might also re-institute breadth requirements for the first two years—with the humble goals, among others, of teaching engineers to read and write, and commerce students to think about something besides taking money out of other people’s pockets.
To enhance both unity and community on campus, why merely “beautify” University Avenue? Why not close both University and Union (from Barrie to Albert) and create a real campus? There’d be room to do some real beautification, as well as to get more cars off campus. More trees? A pond or two? The corner of University and Union imperils all pedestrians who venture there.
All first-and second year students should perform a chosen area (or two) of civic volunteering—if only to keep streets free of the usual ghetto detritus. But there are numerous programs possible to improve town-gown relations. Students and landlords should sign a social contract, with both groups being held to higher standards of behavior than they are today. Landlords should be “hands on,” and helpful. Students should show more respect for property. Courses in Pharmacology might be introduced in “responsible student drinking.” Duh. Perhaps jail terms for miscreants on both sides of the equation might help. Or perhaps the worst landlords should have to eat their cockroaches, not just receive awards.
Queen’s should move into the 21st century in its athletic programs, transforming non-spectator sports to club sports, with the admissions office finally realizing that each of the competitive “big” teams requires more support than it currently receives. Each coach should have, with the blessing of admissions, the ability to admit five student-athletes whose marks are insufficiently stratospheric, but promising. And there should be a modest scholarship program and academic support infrastructure to facilitate the new initiative. Finally, I’d like to see staff and TAs unionized, to bring some balance to human resource relations here. The days of collegiality are over, and these groups need protection from fiscal whim and uncertainty. Get rid of faculty “Merit,” which at present is a time-wasting, aggravating, and ultimately useless task. And let admin and professoriate alike check their attitudes toward academic politics, most of which are also needless. Indeed, vanity bonfires burn most heatedly when nothing but ego is at stake.
A slightly edited version appeared in the Queen's Journal, March 30, 2007