Queen’s history moves into 21st century

Third volume on Queen’s history written by university historian will begin in the early 1960s

University Historian Duncan McDowall, BA ’72 and MA ’74, says the last 50 years have meant vast changes to Queen’s.
University Historian Duncan McDowall, BA ’72 and MA ’74, says the last 50 years have meant vast changes to Queen’s.

As one of the oldest universities in Canada, Queen’s has a history worth telling.

During the depression era, Vice-Principal William Everett McNeill would count packets of 1,000 envelopes to check if they were all there and he once turned down a professor's request for a pencil sharpener because there was one on another floor in the same building.

With these money saving strategies, McNeill managed to present balanced budgets each year without cutting salaries and he is credited with helping Queen’s survive the Depression without drastic cutbacks. Depression era stories such as these accumulate in a 1983 book, Queen's University: Volume II 1917-1961.

But according to Queen’s historian and Adjunct Professor Duncan McDowall the story extends beyond the early 60s. McDowall is in the process of writing a third volume of Queen’s history based on campus happenings from 1961-2004.

“What Queen’s offers has grown radically,” McDowall, BA ’72 and MA ’74, said. “It seems appropriate to write a history that chronicles these changes.”

The new instalment will take a more thematic approach to the history of Queen’s, focusing less on the institutional details covered in the previous volumes, McDowall said.

“How does an institution ... keep what’s good about its tradition and at the same time change? Queen’s has had a very stiff struggle. At times... it has been slow in doing that... but clearly... it must be doing something right.”

McDowall said Queen’s underwent a large expansion beginning in the 1960s.

“Queen’s went from 3,400 [students] in 1960 to pushing 17,000 as it is now. Queen’s advanced the policy very early on that it would be deliberate in its expansion,” he said, adding that this meant Queen’s was careful to safeguard its reputation for academic excellence as the student body grew.

As a Queen’s graduate himself and with a great-grandfather who helped found the University, McDowall said he feels a personal connection to Queen’s and brings a different perspective to the history than either of the two previous historians.

“There are two ways of approaching it,” he said. “You get a total outsider and they see everything afresh, or you go with an insider who ... probably comes with some preconceptions. I’m kind of in the middle.”

The modest project is not coming out of the University’s operating budget, but is instead funded by the Richardson Trust, an endowment at Queen’s.

Queen's University: Volume I 1841-1917 was published in 1978 and written by outside historian Hilda Neatby. Volume II, covering 1917 to 1961, was written by Frederick W. Gibson. Gibson, BA ’42 and MA ’44, taught in the department of history from 1952 to 1985.

After being asked by Principal Woolf to write the book, McDowall began the project at the beginning of this year.

“It’s not a hell of a lot different than writing essays. You sweep all this material in, and at times it seems a little overwhelming,” he said.

To gather as much information as possible and capture all aspects of the University community, McDowall said he uses a variety of resources, from Board of Trustees meeting minutes and Journal archives to interviews with professors.

The last fifty years have brought about vast changes in the areas of study offered at Queen’s, with the advent of environmental science, industrial relations and the business school’s executive MBA.

“The Queen’s contribution has broadened dramatically,” McDowall said. “[It] was guided by ... intelligent men who were pretty good at keeping their eye on the horizon.”

Bill Mackintosh MA ’16, James Alexander Corry and John Deutsch, Comm ’35 all served as principals following WWII and are three men in particular who impacted Queen’s history.

“All had experience in building the social welfare state. They brought it to Queen’s,” he said. Mackintosh and Deutsch both worked in finance while Corry worked as a political scientist.

“The era after the war totally changed the policy landscape of Canada,” McDowall said.

With McDowall scheduled to finish writing by December 2013, the book will be published in time for the University’s 175th Anniversary in 2016. McDowall has been working in the Queen’s Archives for the last three weeks.

McDowell said the completion of the book will likely be his last project.

“I saw it as a delightful opportunity for my kind of semi-retirement,” he said.

According to McDowall, the importance of such documentation lies in the need to learn from history.

“History should inform a kind of active Queen’s citizenship,” he said. “[Queen’s] built this tremendous sort of brand recognition in Canada as one of the best universities ... so you want to know what contributed to that. It should also put a few pegs in the ground about what not to do. Don’t get so self-satisfied with your reputation that you’re oblivious to some things that are changing.”

With files from Clare Clancy

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