Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Campus Corner: Ding dong, Hitchcock's gone

Queen's principal Dr. Karen Hitchcock announced her resignation earlier today, which came on the heels of some severe criticism of her by student leaders, professors, and even our own paper.

It's no secret that I haven't been the biggest Hitchcock fan, especially given her treatment of the athletics review. Back in June, three months after the review's initial release date, she wouldn't even speak to our paper about why it was delayed or when it could be expected out. Instead, we got a statement from one of her plethora of spokespeople that she'd been considering it for a month and would release it in the near future. Well, that near future turned out to be nearer than expected: the day after we went to press, she suddenly released the review (perhaps prompted by our editorial criticizing the delay, or perhaps with the knowledge that any criticism of it would be delayed until our next print issue a month later, as we operate on a slower schedule in the summer months). In any case, her momentous decision that took over a month to come up with was the bold and shocking claim that the report needed further review. She dragged the process out for another six months in the name of soliciting additional feedback (mostly from the same people who gave their opinions before the generation of the review), and then made her final decision over a month after her own deadline.

In keeping with the vein of her bold decisions, the stunning conclusion that took so much time to come to was that parts of the review should be gradually implemented, but the most important recommendation (cutting funding to some teams to fund others at higher levels) should be put off until another review in April 2009 reranked the teams. It certainly seemed a political decision calculated to try and keep both the pro- and anti-review camps happy, perhaps not surprising given how the timing lined up with her quest for reappointment. There are parts of the review I disagree with, but on the whole, it's a pretty solid work and it outlines a compelling vision of excellence in a few sports. The anti-review forces also have a compelling vision of Queen's succeeding in a wide variety of sports. Hitchcock's attempt at a diplomatic response alienated both sides and prevented any solid progress in either direction. As we pointed out in an editorial the next issue, her response effectively nullified the review's chance to accomplish much in the coming years.

"Hitchcock has erred so much on the side of caution she has effectively made no changes at all," we wrote. "With a whole school year nearly passed before her haphazard response, Queen’s athletics hardly seem to be a top priority for Hitchcock.
The Athletics Review had the potential to improve Queen’s athletics and do so within a foreseeable timeframe. Hitchcock’s call to review interuniversity and competitive teams in another year renders that aspect of the initial report useless and doesn’t say anything concrete about the teams’ futures. It seems ridiculous that so much time and money went into the Athletics Review, only for it to be reviewed again."

Hitchcock followed up this lack of concern for athletics with an even more prominent display of her disregard when she skipped the annual end-of-year athletics banquet, sending vice-principal (academic) Patrick Deane instead (as she seemed to do for anything remotely controversial). She did address the assembled crowd via a creepy Orwellian pre-recorded video message, however. This wasn't a lone example of Hitchcock's lack of engagement with athletics, which was starkly different from her predecessors. A Queen's coach I was speaking to the other day told me about a recent encounter she had with ex-principal Bill Leggett, who not only remembered her, but discussed her team's recent successes in detail. It's hard to picture Hitchcock being able to do that, as she rarely attended games. When she did bother to show up, it was usually for a quick photo op at the start, and then she'd swiftly take off to do more important things. Contrast that with a university president like David Naylor of the University of Toronto, who, as James Mirtle wrote about in a Globe feature last fall, sees athletics as important to the school's overall success. Naylor, a former basketball Varsity Blue himself, told Mirtle he fully supports strong varsity teams.

Naylor's approach is hardly unique. In a time when universities are becoming less distinguishable from each other academically, sports play a huge role in both developing tradition and selling your brand. Consider the following quote from Michael Grange's story about the role the success of Carleton's basketball program played in shedding the school's "Last Chance U" reputation. "Their success has changed our outlook," said Dr. Samy Mahmoud, Carleton's president. "Sports are no longer an ancillary activity here. It's at the core of what we do." Wouldn't it be nice if Queen's new principal thought the same way? Sports should be one of the crucial parts of a university: not necessarily neglecting academics for athletics (a la the NCAA), but using athletics to build community spirit and attract people (and donors) to your school. Hitchcock never understood that: let's hope her successor does.

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