The best AMS president we never had

Former Academic Affairs Commissioner Chris Lee was ‘an archetypal Queen’s prospect’

Grant Bishop, Sci ’03
Grant Bishop, Sci ’03

Chris Lee is the best president the AMS never had.

He was the academic affairs commissioner in 2002 when the Pathfinder Proposal, then-Principal Bill Leggett’s framework for tuition deregulation, was put to Queen’s Park. Chris didn’t covet the limelight,
but his unflinching advocacy behind the scenes was instrumental in defeating Pathfinder.

Chris envisioned student government as more than a West Wing for aspiring politicos or fraternities with student-subsidized bars. Chris believed in student societies as integral to a Queen’s education—
both in delivering an informal curriculum through student life and contributing credibly to Queen’s pedagogical evolution.

Yes: this sounds dry and esoteric. Yet, to represent on the Queen’s learning environment and to
provide opportunities for students’ engagement in it are precisely why we have student societies at all.
The pubs and cafés, swank offices and flashy slogans are sleek, but secondary. What is primary is that student societies advance the University’s true historic mission: to be an institution unflaggingly committed to the public good, accessible to all of aptitude regardless of financial means or social strata, and dedicated to furthering its students’ spirit of service while contributing its scholarship to Canada’s sustainable social, economic and technical progress. Chris came from Scarborough.

His parents were divorced. His mother was a primary school teacher and instilled that education
is prerequisite for a democratic and just society. He attended Woburn Collegiate where he watched ethnic gangs clash and drug deals go down, witnessing more than one classmate stabbed.

Queen’s recruiters never visited Chris’ high school auditorium. Yet Chris was an archetypal
Queen’s prospect. Our campus bears the names of those from modest means whom Queen’s endowed
with opportunity: A minister’s son, Robert Sutherland emigrated from Jamaica, achieved 14 academic
accolades while at Queen’s, and became Upper Canada’s first black barrister. Michael Chernoff grew up in a Prairie shack. Alfred Bader escaped the Nazis, arriving to Queen’s when all other Canadian universities had anti- Semitic quotas. John Deutsch was born the eldest of 17 children on a Saskatchewan homestead and, both a Queen’s graduate and our 14th principal, was one of Canada’s most distinguished public servants. Chris came to Queen’s not thinking himself a leader. He thereby recognized the transformative power of this place: its ability to inculcate community spirit, inspire service and incubate leadership. At the end of his second year, having no experience with the AMS and thinking it a long shot, he applied to be academic affairs commissioner, and blew the interviewers away with his passion for post-secondary education. He then revolutionized the office, spinning out thoroughly researched reports on everything from pedagogy to lobbying strategy, from T.A. training to double cohort planning. When Leggett released Pathfinder, Chris led the charge on his AMS Council against the proposal. A vice-principal telephoned Chris regarding the AMS’s opposition, swearing and
cursing him, but Chris stood his ground. He always maintained the highest regard for Leggett, whose
rationale for Pathfinder he respected if disputed; but he resented the unscrupulous tactics of certain other administrators and their strategic patronage of ambitious student leaders.

Chris recognized that educational quality and diversity are functions of the affordability of education: if capable individuals can’t attend, the learning community evaporates with dumb, rich students as the distillate; if working-class immigrants can’t afford tuition, then Queen’s canonly veneer its brochures with a handful of token visible minorities from elite prep schools. He argued that the AMS’s
role must be more than empire-building within a JDUC fiefdom or pork-barrelling bar jobs to cool housemates. The AMS needed to be a nexus for campus dialogue; a forum for debate about the
tectonic stresses contorting higher education. In a time of mounting campus tension—between faculties, between ideologies—Chris envisioned the AMS’s return to Queen’s collaborative and
federalist roots.

Yet Chris never ran for AMS president. In real politick fashion, the story of why he didn’t is one of others’ ambition, deceit and betrayal. Instead, Chris left Queen’s for law school and, during Bob
Rae’s Review of Post-Secondary Education, initiated a collective submission by Ontario’s law students on tuition and access. The moral of this history is two-fold.

Firstly, student representation must embody service above self—not personal ambition or political aspiration. It must be about humble dedication to this learning community. And that’s the second
point: Student representation needs to be about education. It is education that will make Canada a more productive, compassionate and just society. That purpose must be once more the guiding mission of this Queen’s community.

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