After a decade, Principal Woolf prepares to depart

A look back at the principal’s administration from 2009 to 2019

Woolf has run Queen’s for the past 10 years.
Photo: 
Every year, the principal of Queen’s University loses 1,800 sugar cookies to Stauffer Library. 
 
Armed with reusable grocery bags full of Card’s Bakery cookies, Daniel Woolf and his wife Julie Gordon-Woolf enter the library prepared for their exam season “cookie drop.” 
 
The couple has done this for the past several years. They started with 500 cookies, but demand has steadily increased. Tackling the library table by table, Gordon-Woolf usually watches her husband go up to each person to offer them a cookie, often met with confusion or a blank stare. It’s understandable—professors rarely visit the library, or hand out food.
 
“I’m the principal,” he tells them. It’s a job he once told his wife he had less chance of getting than he did winning the lottery. Now, he’s leaving it. 
 
***
 
On Sept. 4, 2008, Woolf received an email he’s celebrated every year since. A head hunter suggested he enter his name into the running for Queen’s principalship. 
 
At the time, the University was in dire financial straits, clouded by pension complications and an impenetrable budget. For Woolf, who emailed back in close to the “Guinness World Book record for responding to an email,” the role was a welcome challenge. 
 
Moving forward, he’d go on to face a decade of financial and cultural institutional turmoil, several changes of government, a revolving door of colleagues, and several cohorts of students. He’d be pushed to address mental health, inequity, and freedom of speech issues on campus, among others. 
 
But in that moment, citing the “significant financial and governance challenges” at the time, Woolf said his decades of experience at three other institutions—McMaster, Dalhousie and the University of Alberta—meant he had the experience and perspective to feel that he “might be able to help” as an administrator at the University.
 
Though an administrator for 22 years now, Woolf’s an academic. He studies Tudor and Stuart British history and historiographical studies. He relishes passing around rare editions of Thomas Hobbes as guest instructor of a first-year intellectual history course. That, and his penchant for education, is what makes the course’s former professor, Richard Bailey, call Woolf a “master teacher.”
 
Having earned a BAH in History and returning to teach as a post-doctoral fellow at Queen’s, Woolf viewed the principalship as the “job of his lifetime.” The same weekend it was announced that Principal Karen Hitchcock was stepping down, Woolf was visiting Queen’s with his 12th-grade son, Sam. Gordon-Woolf says her husband “embarrassed Sam left, right, and centre” by introducing himself to others on campus as an Arts ’80 grad. 
 
That spirit emanating from Queen’s students is a defining factor in his love for the school. Woolf is a man who, upon entering a Tim Horton’s in Hamilton, once approached a stranger in a tricolour scarf to ask whether he was a fellow alum. “I’ve seen it in Daniel from the moment I met him,” Gordon-Woolf said. “He [still] has that feeling about Queen’s.”
 
***
 
People close to Woolf describe his first term at the University, from 2008 to 2013, as “putting out fires.” 
 
Faced with a lack of governmental relations work and an absence from the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), the school’s profile-building work wasn’t where it needed to be to get the donations and publicity required to surpass its financial difficulties. 
 
The principal describes his “toughest single year” as 2009, which saw an increase in suicides and two accidental deaths on campus. He called the events “the worst thing that could happen on your watch,” whether as an administrator or person. 
 
“We’re not funded as a mental health institution—we’re funded as a university,” Woolf said. Still, he’s “very pleased” about his leadership on mental health both at Queen’s and in interactions with other Ontario universities.
 
With that in mind, Woolf fundamentally changed the role of the Queen’s principal. He established the role of provost and vice-principal (academic), introducing his former McMaster colleague, Dr. Alan Harrison, to work as his “chief operating officer.” The new role was to focus on internal affairs, dividing the administrator’s responsibilities and allowing Woolf to invest time in other areas.  
 
Back then, his day started at 6:30 a.m.—earlier, if he wanted to squeeze in some exercise. It was an eight-minute walk to be in the office by 8:30 a.m. At the end of the day, he left the office with what his longtime assistant, Cheryl Lewis, calls his “diplomatic pouch,” filled with correspondence to answers and problems to solve. Then, sleep. 
 
He met with the provost at least once a week, and every Monday night took a different faculty member to dinner, eager to learn more about their research and teaching. He sat in eight to 10 meetings daily, supervised History graduate student research, taught undergraduate classes, and continued to write academically.
 
Times have changed, though. Now, his wife and their two cats, Basia and Luis, have moved to a farmhouse 30 miles northwest, where he’s currently lobbying her for a dog to accompany his retirement from administration. Closer to his transition to strictly academic work, Woolf now starts his day closer to 9 a.m. There seem to be fewer fires to put out these days. 
 
 
***
 
For the time being, the principal’s office is a cavernous suite. After passing the cubicles of his administrative team before entering his quarters, you’re met with comfortable disorder. 
 
Overall, Woolf’s office looks more like that of a scholar than it does an administrator. 
 
Historical books and sheaves of paper are scattered across a long table, where he prefers to work instead of at his desk. He has a calendar on the wall made from photos he’s taken himself over the previous year (a recent highlight calendar was barn-themed). He’s stiff when meeting visitors, but visibly relaxes when showing them books about Britain’s colonial presence in India. 
 
At the beginning of his tenure, Chancellor Jim Leech said he struggled to understand how to relate to Woolf—“this historical scholar with a quirky sense of humour.” He called Principal Woolf a shy individual to whom “rah-rah” spirit doesn’t come naturally. 
 
Leech remembers him at an elite event in Toronto five or six years ago, which the two attended together looking for donors. Leech was pleasantly surprised to see Woolf flitting between donors. “He knew that was what he had to do as his job. He may hate it, but he’s going to go do it,” Leech said.
 
The principal isn’t comfortable at large social events. He prefers Monty Python skits and jazz music, but every person The Journal interviewed referenced his sense of humour and his use of puns to connect with others. At one of her first formal events, Rector Alex Da Silva said Woolf put her at ease.  “Now, whenever there’s a crisis on campus, we can send in ‘Da Silva bullet,’” Woolf said. 
 
Those puns reappear on twitter—Woolf said that, by and large, nobody writes his tweets but him—which “makes [the University’s] communications people a little nervous,” though thus far, he’s “kept out of trouble.” 
 
***
 
However, not everyone agrees that Principal Woolf keeps out of trouble. 
 
Queen’s has been plagued for decades by racially discriminatory voices on campus and flagging mental health action. Protests on campus over the past decade voice that he hasn’t done enough to address those concerns. 
 
Woolf cited his administration’s lack of attention to inclusivity as his primary regret over his tenure. Of 2016’s infamous “racist party,” he called it a “trivial offense.”
 
“It was a bunch of young people acting insensitively. It was not a consciously racist thing,” he said.
 
Some depart from that perspective. Last year, shortly after the same party, the Eyes on Diversity and Equity Coalition formed on campus to pressure the administration recognize their demands.
 
Primarily, they organized to demand a public statement explaining why the racist party wasn’t penalized under the Non-Academic Misconduct System. The group of students repeated the refrain, “What time is it, Mr. Woolf?”
 
The principal concedes that the party emphasized Queen’s cultural problem, and that diversity concerns haven’t received adequate attention.
 
PhD student Edward Thomas, who worked with Principal Woolf to rescind a historical ban on Black medical students, pointed out the symbolic resonance of the principal’s job when addressing diversity. 
 
“Tasked with cultivating shared narratives of institutional purpose,” Principal Woolf must “improve Queen’s understanding of its past [and] motivate its present-day engagement with issues of identity and belonging,” Thomas said.
 
“We’re a great institution, but we’re not a perfect institution, and we never have been a perfect institution. As a historian, I always believe you shouldn’t eradicate bad history—you should own up to it,” Woolf said. 
 
***
 
As Principal Woolf faces his final 100 days in office, he’s left to consider the past 10 years of challenges and accomplishments alike. 
 
Julie Gordon-Woolf says her husband has been “24/7 for 10 years.” From birth, Woolf’s father said he didn’t know where he got the energy to continually work. 
 
When he originally considered staying at Queen’s for a third term as principal in 2017, Woolf was swayed by voices around him urging him to continue—but he was getting tired. 
 
“There’s such a thing as outstaying one’s welcome,” Woolf said of his decision to leave. Within five minutes of announcing his decision to withdraw his name from consideration, he felt “tremendous relief.” 
 
Chancellor Leech swears he sees a younger Daniel Woolf today than five months ago. “Once you discover what you’re going to do next, you’re comfortable with the decision,” Leech said. “He made, for himself, a very wise decision.”
 
That decision marks a step back from the international travel, donor schmoozing, and packed schedules that filled the last decade.
 
Described as a man who “can’t do nothing,” Woolf’s already got book reviews lined up and grad students to continue supervising. His alto saxophone has gone untouched since he arrived in Kingston over a decade ago, and he’s got a stack of detective novels collecting dust. 
 
Woolf will maintain an office in Watson Hall and get back to reading, writing, and designing courses on a full-time basis. He’s excited to sit in his office, read, drink coffee, and chat with students without wondering about the next email to hit his screen.
 
“It would be disingenuous to say that [I] won’t miss the fast pace and being at the centre of major things,” Woolf said. However, he’s content with the knowledge that “it’s better to leave a party an hour early than a minute too late.”

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