Woolf in Queen’s clothing once more

Set to take office in September as Queen’s 20th principal, Daniel Woolf says he’s ready to be a student once again

Daniel Woolf, who will assume the principal’s duties Sept. 1, said he believes the University’s budget problems are cyclical.
Daniel Woolf, who will assume the principal’s duties Sept. 1, said he believes the University’s budget problems are cyclical.
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Woolf said he wants to evaluate the success of the upcoming spring reunion event before making a decision on Homecoming.
Woolf said he wants to evaluate the success of the upcoming spring reunion event before making a decision on Homecoming.
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Having spent time in Kingston as both an undergraduate student and a postdoctoral fellow, Daniel Woolf is no stranger to studying at Queen’s. Now, as he prepares to move back to Kingston for a five-year stint as the University’s 20th principal, he’s ready to dust off his books once again.

“In some ways I’m going to be a student again, too, because I’ve got an awful lot of learning to do in the next number of months,” said Woolf, ArtSci ’80, over the phone from his office at the University of Alberta last week.

In Edmonton, Woolf and his wife, Julie Gordon-Woolf, are preparing for their move to Kingston. Starting July 1, the principal-to-be will begin shadowing Principal Tom Williams in preparation for his Sept. 1 start date. A scholar in the field of early modern history, he will also take on a role as a faculty member in Queen’s history department, but he won’t be teaching any courses this summer.

When asked what went through his mind when he was offered the spot at Queen’s, Woolf didn’t hesitate.

“I think it’s fair to say that you would be very unwise in any situation like this not to consider the realities and look very, very closely at them before becoming a candidate,” he said.

“At the end it was a very easy decision. Queen’s is a very remarkable university and it’s also the one ... for which I have the highest degree of affection and loyalty.”

And that’s saying something. Woolf has spent time at Oxford University, Bishop’s University, Dalhousie University and McMaster University, as well as Alberta, where he has been Dean of the Faculty of Arts since 2002. At McMaster, Woolf was Dean of the Faculty of Humanities from 1999 to 2002, after serving as Associate Dean and Acting Dean for the Faculty of Graduate Studies at Dalhousie.

After so many years in various ivory towers, Woolf said some of his fondest Queen’s memories include working as a research assistant over the summer before his fourth year and helping tutor a student in a first-year history course.

As a history major, Woolf said, much of his time was devoted to the department’s student council. In his first year he was treasurer, and spent the following three years on the DSC.

Although he spent time in the pool, lifting weights and using the track, Woolf said he was never much of an athlete—but he did catch the occasional Queen’s football game. He also spent a lot of his time at concerts in downtown Kingston and at Clark Hall Pub, Alfie’s and Grant Hall.

“Probably, in retrospect, I didn’t participate as much as I would have liked or as I’ve advised my kids to do,” said the father of three. Woolf has a son who’s finishing his first year at Queen’s.

As an alumnus, Woolf gave his son the campus tour with the nostalgic fervor most alumni bring along when they visit the University. But now, the incoming principal is turning to his kids for advice—after all, it’s been almost 30 years since he was an undergrad.

When he visited with his son last spring, Woolf said, he had no plans to take on the role of principal.

“I knew the position was coming over because the incumbent had resigned the previous week,” he said. “I had not the slightest, foggiest notion that this would be the end result.” During his first year at Queen’s, Woolf lived in 326 Brockington House, one door down from AMS President-elect Michael Ceci’s first-year room, he said. His next three years were divided among apartments close to campus—a “one roomer” on Nelson Street, a building on Alfred Street and another at 551 Frontenac Street.

After graduating from Queen’s with first-class honours, Woolf did his master’s at Oxford University with a thesis called “Change and Continuity in English Historical Thought, c. 1590-1640.” In 1984 he made his way back to Queen’s, where he worked as a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow until 1986. But he didn’t see much of Kingston after that until his 20th reunion in 2000, he said.

Woolf’s first tenured position, at Dalhousie, was difficult to secure, he said. After that, he slipped into an administrative role “rather accidentally.” “Most academics simply want to teach and research,” he said. “I see myself as a professor who’s taken a now-elongated time-out.”

Woolf’s research is focused on early modern English history and historical writing. He’s working on two major tasks: an editorial project, The Oxford History of Historical Writing, and a one-volume textbook he plans to work on this summer, when there’s time.

“I wouldn’t be looking for that one on the bookshelves any time soon,” he said.

But the Oxford project is nearing completion, and Woolf’s full-time assistant is also moving to Kingston to keep things moving. The project—a chronological study of the way people preserve, recover and recount the past—is compiled in five volumes and has about 150 contributors.

Despite having to put some of his research on hold, Woolf said leaving the University of Alberta wasn’t a difficult decision.

“I think for almost any other job it would have been [hard to leave Alberta] because I’ve had just a wonderful time out here,” he said. “At the same time, you know, Queen’s is my alma mater. I feel very, very strongly about it and the opportunity to come into a leadership role at the institution where one was an undergrad is a very, very rare privilege.”

After having read the two-volume history of Queen’s in preparation for his new position, Woolf said he believes the University’s current budget problems are cyclical.

“This is nothing new in Queen’s history,” he said. “We’ve survived; we’re into our 17th decade and we’re going to be here for another 17 decades.”

In a sense, he said, there’s an upside to the budget difficulties.

“They really force you to think about what’s absolutely core and crucial and important to the identity and mission of the University,” he said.

“If I have a single worst fear about the next couple of years, it’s not that we’re not going to get through the current budget crisis; my fear is that we lose the opportunity to make some real transformative change at the institution.”

Although he said it’s too early to talk about specifics, Woolf has a number of short-term and long-term items on his to-do list.

For one thing, he plans to spend time getting to know more about the parts that make up the whole of Queen’s campus. In addition to regular meetings with AMS and faculty society representatives, he hopes to meet with students who aren’t involved in government, “whether just sitting in the cafeteria or stopping students on the street.”

Another priority, he said, is town-gown relations.

In his January press conference, Woolf referred to Kingston as “hosts” to Queen’s students.

“It is absolutely imperative that we maintain excellent relations with Kingston, because they are our hosts,” he said at the time.

“I noted that that did actually push a couple of buttons,” he said over the phone last week. “Students have an incredibly important role to play in the city. They make significant contribution to Kingston’s economy. Significant numbers of them work in the area—they staff the coffee shops, many them do volunteer work for nonprofits … that’s an absolutely important role, so I don’t think the use of the word ‘hosts’ in any way implies that students are not welcome or that they do not have an important role.”

At the same time, Woolf said, many students do leave the city for the summer and at the end of their university careers.

“All I would simply ask is that our students remember that they’re adults, ordinary adults, and it’s important that they behave respectfully and civilly, which the vast and overwhelming majority do.”

In terms of Homecoming, Woolf said he thinks the University is on the right track.

“Traditions are quite hard to part with sometimes, but when they become dangerous, or potentially dangerous, they do need to be reviewed,” he said, adding that although he’ll happily evaluate the situation in a couple of years, for now it’s important to measure the success of the spring reunion event. Part of his assessment will involve meeting with alumni, although he said it’s too early to say where his travels will take him.

“I am deeply conscious of the fact that my responsibility next year is going to be spending some time on campus with that community,” he said.

Another one of the new principal’s objectives is building Queen’s international reputation. When asked about his plans, Woolf said his hope is that, in seven years, Queen’s name will be recognized anywhere in the world. The seven-year target is geared toward the University’s 175th anniversary in 2016, he said, adding that the goal is important regardless of whether he’s around for a second five-year term.

“It’s going to be very important on the longer run to be focused and strategic and not—pardon the pun—all over the map,” he said.

For now, it’s too early to make decisions about where that focus should be, Woolf said. First, he needs more advice from the campus community. He said he believes enhancing the University’s name will be easier now that some of the negative press the institution attracted earlier this academic year has faded.

“I think to some degree we may have under-promoted some of our real success stories compared to other institutions,” he said, adding that a number of interesting “good news stories” have come out of Queen’s since January.

“I think we have turned a corner.”

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