Hitchcock reflects on year

Our 18th principal sits down for a Q & A with the Journal

Principal Karen Hitchcock was installed as Queen’s 18th principal on Oct. 28, 2004.
Principal Karen Hitchcock was installed as Queen’s 18th principal on Oct. 28, 2004.

To commemorate the one-year anniversary of Principal Karen Hitchcock’s official instalment as 18th principal of Queen’s University, the Journal sat down with her to gather some reflections on the past year.

JOURNAL: You are the first female principal at Queen’s. Reflecting on your experiences here thus far, do you think this is significant for this University specifically?

HITCHCOCK: I think it reflects on something very important about Queen’s, which is its ability to focus on what is important, and what is important is having a person at Queen’s as principal that values the traditions, that supports the values of the institution. [Someone who] also can bring experience of a different sort, a different type of experience to Queen’s, that within the context of the strength of Queen’s will help it move forward in different ways. So it’s Queen’s looking at what’s important at the moment, as supposed to things that don’t matter as much, which [include] gender. So I think it’s a statement of Queen’s emphasis on things that matter to the institution at a particular point in time.

You are also the first American to become principal, and you were formerly the president of the State University of New York at Albany. What differences have you observed between Canadian and American post-secondary education?

Well, that’s a very broad question. I think there’s more that is similar than is different between the two educational systems. A lot of the same challenges face both, which is an increasing population of students wishing to go on to post-secondary education. So you have increased demand for an education—which is a wonderful thing—even as in the U.S. and here you’re facing financial constraints because of the many demands that exist on public monies.

So you have that challenge of being sure you create opportunities for everyone, whatever their socioeconomic abilities are with regard to being able to afford—or not—a university education. So you want to be sure all students who wish to can attend some part of the post-secondary system. And then in the midst of it, you have to ask the question “Access to what?” and the “access to what” is access to quality.

So we have to be sure that our programs remain of high quality, and that also takes resources. So, like universities in the U.S., you have the need to identify revenues for the institution in addition to those that are offered by the government.

Here at Queen’s, just as in the U.S., philanthropy is an important part of the equation, also partnering with other organizations—be they sister institutions or corporate, private sector. The U.S. in many institutions has been at private fundraising longer than in Canada, but I hasten to add that at Queen’s, there has been a tradition of giving and as you know our very successful first Capital Campaign, so Queen’s is ahead of many institutions in Canada with regard to its well-developed procedures and policies and experience in fundraising. So that’s much more like what I was used to at the institutions I came from.

I think issues of access are critical, but also how does one, with limited resources—and hence we have to be very creative and we have to be innovative—how do we provide academic programming for our students that prepares them for a very complex society that they will be entering? That is a question we have to constantly ask and have the best thinking of our faculty throughout. Again, that’s a similarity to the U.S., not a difference. So many, many issues are the same between the two systems of post-secondary [education].

Over the past year you’ve become familiar with the challenges and the complexities of post-secondary funding in Ontario. Do you foresee deregulation ever happening during your time as principal at Queen’s?

“Deregulation” is a word that bothers me. I like the word[s] “local decisions,” with regard to tuition levels. In some ways, that occurs now with regard to certain ranges of tuition. That in itself is looking at local control. I personally support that fully, because there’s no body that knows its student body better than the administration and trustees of a particular institution.

Often there’s an assumption that there’s going to be, with local autonomy, massive increases in tuition levels. That in itself would not be prudent, because access remains our major issue. So that no way would there be a program of increasing tuition without increasing support to assure that we maintain access for our students and we keep it a very diverse and highly qualified student body.

The issue of local decisions is under, as you know, much discussion right now with regard to a tuition framework for the province. I think the basic realization we all have to come to is the fact that education is a sure enterprise and that, certainly, the public benefits—so there should be a contribution from the public—and, certainly the individual benefits—so there should be contribution from the individual. And, certainly, the institution benefits, because it’s shaped and formed by the very people it educates.

All three must participate, I believe, in the funding of this process. Getting the balance right is what the issue is. Getting the balance right and getting it right in the context of accessibility.

Do you have any particularly poignant experiences with students over the past year you’d like to share?

You bet. Over the past year I have had the opportunity to meet many students, and I hope each day I continue to meet more and more students. There’s almost 20,000 students here if you count full-time and part-time. So one of the things we’re seeking for [is to find] one of the best venues to meet students in ways that I can really communicate with them, not just be speaking beforea group—like the welcome ceremony, 3,500 students—so that’s part of it.

But during my welcoming speech, as an example, I asked everyone that when they saw me on campus to say “hello” and I’d say “hello” back. And they’re doing it, the new students, and I hope all students do it. An opportunity as I walk about the campus to chat, informally, to students.

Also I’ve had dinner in residence to meet with groups of students, [and] through the strategic planning process we’re meeting more students through the town halls, hearing their views. Walking down University [Avenue] I’ve had wonderful encounters with students, some of which have gone on for an hour—it’s great.

And, of course, I have routine meetings with the AMS and the leadership of the professional students [SGPS], but I’m also looking for ways to meet students who aren’t in elected roles and to have conversations over the next several months. I’m hoping to have informal conversations perhaps over in the JDUC and be there informally and any suggestions students have for other ways…

How would you like students to get suggestions to you?

There’s many, many ways. On the strategic planning, I mean, one of the ways is through the website. On the internet, certainly, e-mail—be it about the strategic planning process or not.

And certainly students can call and make appointments to see me. And if they come by and happen to be free, the door’s open. So it’s many different ways to provide input on issues and how we can better get acquainted.

What would you say is your greatest accomplishment over the past year?

Again, it’s a cluster of things, and it involves what makes this institution so special, and that’s the people that are involved. So I think of the successful recruitment to us, people like Patrick Deane, the vice-principal (academic) and Rod Morrison, the vice-principal (human resources).

Also, then, I think a wonderful moment for the institution was the successful negotiation with QUFA [Queen’s University Faculty Association], the faculty union. Where we look forward, now, to years ahead of very supportive relations with such an important group, the faculty.

I think about the unbelievable number—this is not my accomplishment—but I do relish the opportunity to talk about what students do here at Queen’s, which is a tremendous amount of volunteerism, be it in Sri Lanka or Kingston. Getting to know the students isn’t an accomplishment, per se, but it’s what this job is all about—is to have our students benefit from this experience here, but also to contribute.

I’m also very pleased we’ve been able to launch a strategic planning process. During the past year was the interactions with all of the parts of the Queen’s community—and by that I also mean alumni and friends of the campus who care deeply about it—and to interact with them and to, first of all, learn of their interest in a vision as we move forward into the next 10, 20 years. I want to be a part of that, contribute to it.

And then, launching it and having really wonderful input to date, now, with regard to Town Hall meetings and luncheons and special sessions, meaning the interest has been very gratifying. I’m pleased we were able to launch this so quickly in my tenure.

Because we really are facing—as all post-secondary education is—some unbelievable challenges right now with regard to the whole context of education, the funding of it, but more importantly what we need to do vis-à-vis our academic programs if we’re going to serve our students well. So this planning period is a critical one and I’m very gratified with the interest that’s been shown.

What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced over the past year?

I think it’s a challenge we all face, and that’s an issue of coming to a common view of what matters at this institution. And here I’m speaking of incidents, unfortunately, like Aberdeen Street. I’m talking [about] things that happen that do not show what we are about and what the vast majority of students care about.

A challenge we all face is to come together and talk about what matters about this place. And, very importantly, what our role is as stewards of this place—institutions like this that go on for scores and scores of years, that aren’t around just for a decade or so.

Every group that inhabits [Queen’s] for a moment in time is responsible for it and the students no less, or no more, than the faculty. And I think the challenge we have is to have students be a part of that conversation, to see their role as stewards of this institution for the time that they’re there.

We have a great tradition—our alumni continue to feel that responsibility—and we’re looking to find ways they can express that, through helping student recruitment or coming on career days or providing resources for scholarships and such. But it’s more than that. As a steward, the very image of this place, the reputation of it, is in our hands for the time that we are here.

The biggest challenge is we bring everyone to an understanding of our own individual responsibilities for this place, that hopefully means a lot to each of us. So that responsibility for, stewards for, concept is one that faces us. If we get that one right, we’re not going to have to worry about Aberdeen Street.

The one thing I want to come back to—you mentioned about learning—I think one of the things that moved me the most was the response of the student body with response to the tragic deaths we had on our campus of members of the student body—Justin [Schwieg] and Nicholas [Beaulieu]. To see the students coming together in a way that so helped those families to get through what was an unbelievably difficult time.


Queen’s students—they’re energetic, they’re creative, they’re demanding in a wonderful way intellectually, and they should be. You know, demand away with regards to that. They’re a group that has expectations, and again back to our challenge, [a group] that I think are ready to look at the responsibilities that come with that with regard to this institution.

Another challenge that arose last February was when it became public that you faced a New York State ethics commission inquiry. At the time, you issued a written statement in which you stated you would be putting forth efforts towards responding to the “false and anonymous accusations.” Is there anything more you’d like to say to Queen’s students about this issue?

No, not really. We have sought every venue for being able to respond, there has been no such venue and the fact of the matter is the commitments I’ve made to this institution, [and] the fact that the charges were absolutely baseless, continues to be true.

They’re absolutely baseless and here I don’t think I’ve ever found such a groundswell of support, the Journal [to be] very fair and very transparent, and it was again a feeling of tremendous support from students right through to trustees. So I was very, very pleased—the charges were and are baseless, and we indeed did seek every venue possible and there just is not a venue.

In the same week you were installed as principal last year, tensions between permanent and student residents of Kingston came to a head. Shortly after, the University took on a mediating role: a telephone hotline to accept complaints about student behaviour was installed, and the Principal’s Task Force on Community Relations was struck. Unfortunately, these tensions have continued to be a problem. What do you feel is the University’s role when it comes to student-community relations?

Again, the University here I define as all of us who are part of it—it’s not the administration, it’s not the faculty, it’s not just the students. The University and all its members, first of all, need to be good citizens of the community of which they are part. No more, no less than any citizen of this community.

That hotline, as an example, was put in as much for student use as it was for permanent resident use. That wasn’t perhaps as appreciated. [But it was for student use too,] because we had so many students who came to us about noise issues and such.

That committee I think was an important one—did it solve the problem? Did we have another problem? Indeed we did. Right now, what we need to do together is to work from a number of different directions, and here I come back to something I’ve said vis-à-vis the students: there’s no more important force right now around issues of good citizenship than students themselves. It has to be made known, as it has been to me individually by student, after student, after student, that this is not acceptable behaviour. Period. End. It is not acceptable.

So the question is, how does the student body communicate to itself? How does it get that message across that this isn’t acceptable? There were thousands of people at Aberdeen who were observing. They were not throwing beer bottles at ambulance workers, they were not trying to light cars, you know, have cars potentially explode. They were not there taking the street. They were observing. And yet it was that presence there that led to the whole mob mentality that went there.


If the student body decides that’s not a place to be on that night, it’s a very different dynamic.

So how, over the ensuing months, do we mobilize the heartfelt feeling I’ve had expressed to me by students—that this was shameful, this was deplorable—how do we stop it? How do we convert that sentiment into group action, which means you don’t go there? So that’s one approach.

Certainly, very much, I want to work with the community, with the students, et cetera around the quality of residences [in the Ghetto]. It’s deplorable. There are areas that are just deplorable there. We have to do that. We have to take leadership with our city around the quality of the housing our students have access to—very important.

Continuing to have dialogue with the police. Continue to have dialogue with the AMS with regards to its procedures for our judicial review of its non-academic [discipline system]—it’s so important. To work with them as it pertains to this or any situation.

So I think it’s going to take every element, every part of this institution to work on the relationship with the community. At the heart of it, I guess, I’d use one word: respect. If we all show it and share it and feel it, we’re there.

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