Higher Education Strategy Associates

Embrace and Contain

One of the reasons that Canadian universities have such an astonishing level of freedom from government oversight – particularly in Ontario – is that our university presidents have over the years achieved absolute mastery of the art of “embrace and contain.”

Devotees of Yes, Minister, will know what I’m talking about. “Minister,” Sir Humphrey would say, “I am fully seized of your aims and will do my utmost to put them into practice.” This, of course, was code for saying that the department was going to sit on the initiative until the Minister forgot about it. Embrace the idea, but contain and subtly redefine its meaning out of existence.

Queen’s President Daniel Woolf gave a masterclass in this a few weeks ago in an op-ed about the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and University’s summer consultation tour which appeared in the Globe on August 9th. Striking a slightly different pose from the rest of his fellow Ontario Presidents (most of whom feel the less said about this Minister the better), he embraced Glen Murray’s call for change, warning grimly about “the consequences of doing nothing” and suggesting that “the government’s latest paper is a good kickstart” to a new round of discussions about university reform.

Then came the contain. He went on to say that the change in universities is “difficult and complex,” that the process will require “compromise and negotiation,” and ended with a call to “do it right – not just right now.” Translation: Back off, Minister, we’ll do it our way, thanks. But doesn’t it sound nicer the way he says it?

Of course, Woolf’s been on the other end of this process, too. When he first returned to Queen’s, back in 2009, he tried to get the community to start thinking about the need for change to adapt to straightened financial circumstances. Among other things, this included the need to start thinking about concentrating resources, focusing on core competencies, etc. In this, he was a good eight to 12 months ahead of most other university presidents.

He then asked a panel of senior academics to consult widely on what Queen’s core competencies actually were and wound up on the receiving end some serious embrace-and-contain from his own faculty. A few months later, the report came back with the conclusion – suitably embellished with statements of values, etc. – that Queen’s had two major core competencies. One was teaching. The other was – wait for it – research. There was a bit more to it, of course, but that was the core message – Queen’s should concentrate on research and teaching. Brilliant.

Anyways, embrace-and-contain – a key weapon in any academic’s arsenal. Use it wisely, grasshoppers.

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