End of the Road

August 2007: We began with high hopes, but our Canada dream ended in disappointment. In September, Chaya, Julia and I will be moving to the UK, to Oxford. Those interested in the details of that move are encouraged to read the sequel there. Here, I will sum up the Kingston experience.

Disappointments with Queen's University

Cognitive dissonance

I recognized from the beginning a certain amount of cognitive dissonance in my approach to the university and the city. Determined to be pleased and proud of my new physical and intellectual home, I sought out supporting evidence and avoided contradictions. Queen's certainly has the reputation of an elite institution in Canada, even if hardly anyone outside of Canada has heard of it. Queen's is considered to be the most competitive university for students to get into, even if the reasons are sometimes obscure, and may be summarised by the comment of a Toronto colleague who said of his high school cohort, "If you were rich and white, Queen's was the place to go". Queen's is regularly ranked near the top among Canadian research universities by Maclean's (the relentlessly bland universal magazine of all things Canadian), even if everyone who knows the Canadian academic scene recognises a huge gulf in intellectual climate between the big three -- McGill, UBC, and Toronto -- and the rest. Still, Queen's has a noble history and great potential strengths. There is a strong medical school and epidemiology program, internationally respected mathematical biologists, and apparent eagerness to hire me and Julia, suggesting a support for further growth in our areas of mathematics and statistics.

It was only much later that I recognized that cognitive dissonance is endemic to Queen's. There are three kinds of faculty members at Queen's. I will limit myself to the typology, without commenting on the relative proportions: Type 1 are the people who would be a credit to any institution of higher learning, and who are at Queen's because they believe it is the best place for them to be, or they are otherwise strongly attached to the university, and believe in its special mission. These people are a mystery to me, but I believe in their sincerity, and would not question their judgement. Type 2 landed a position here early in the previous millennium, were tenured as a matter of course (the main criterion for tenure until about a decade ago being a Y chromosome*; this criterion has since been relaxed). Type 3 professors could probably get a job somewhere better, and might like to, but having been seduced by the exceptionally low housing prices (and commuting times to the aristocratic manse with the private duck pond in a small fraction of the time you would need to get to a corresponding sized spread in the GTA). Such people are eager to convince themselves that Queen's is as it was, the premier university in the united province of Canada. They will quote to you statistics like that the students at Queen's have the highest average school grades of those attending university in their home province (or is it outside their home province?) and point out that Queen's is one of only three Canadian universities to have won the annual Putnam competition in undergraduate mathematics, without mentioning that the other two (Toronto and Waterloo) have placed among the top five nearly twenty times each, most recently in 2006 and 2005 respectively, while Queen's accomplished this feat three times, most recently when John Diefenbaker was prime minister. Such people are eager to tell us about the grinding poverty that confronts academics in the UK, the crumbling infrastructure and choking red tape.

Statistics at Queen's

We came, as I say, with high hopes, but soon discovered that we had been brought to Queen's perhaps with good intentions, but under false pretenses. It would not be appropriate to go into the details of our personal situation, but there were (and now again will be) only three (at a generous count) statisticians as against 25 mathematicians, and the mathematicians consequently dominate . While there is considerable good will in some quarters directed at the principle of building up the statistics program, in practice the broad majority view statisticians as did Musil's Man Without Qualities, as 'bad mathematicians'. I had numerous conversations which ended with the punchline, "But the good statisticians all get better-paying jobs elsewhere," or "Their work is mathematically shallow." Under other circumstances we might have worked to change attitudes, but since this was both a source and consequence of a flat retreat from what we'd understood as an implied promise -- eagerness, really, it was held out to us -- to move Julia from her temporary "spousal" position into a regular faculty position, we were in a weak position. We were encouraged to throw our effort into building up a statistics program, but there was no willingness to give us the stability that would allow us to plan for a future there, not to mention any promise of support or resources. (The university also backed out from an agreement to resolve my tenure in my second year, saying that they weren't bound by promises made in emails; only agreements in a letter signed by the principal are valid. This is an important point to note, for anyone reading this who may be now or in the future negotiating with Queen's University.) This didn't seem fair or tenable, so we are moving on.

I have some hope that the department, under new leadership, will be taking the statistics half of its mission more seriously. On the other hand, it must be noted that no one involved in the decision to reject Julia for a regular faculty position has expressed any regret at the course that events have taken, so we must assume that this was not any kind of failure of communication, but rather a successful attempt to undo the mistakes of the previous appointments committee that hired us. Nor has any dean or senior person in the administration expressed any interest in knowing why three of the four new faculty hires in the department of the past two years are already leaving.


Good things

Mulberry School in Kingston seems to be one of the very few Waldorf (or, at least, "Waldorf-inspired") schools within walking distance of a city centre -- about fifteen minutes at a brisk walk from our house. (Waldorf parents tend to range from skeptical toward Luddite in their regard of information technologies introduced since the Reformation, but they do seem to love driving cars.) Chaya was in their kindergarten program, and found it delightful. We have high hopes for her new school in Oxford, but leaving Mulberry School is one of our greatest regrets from Kingston.

Other to-be-missed Kingston institutions are the Sleepless Goat Cafe, where I spent many of my days working, eating, and drinking tea; the reform Jewish congregation Iyr HaMelech, with whom we celebrated many a Kabbalat Shabbat (at our own home; while Jewish reform may have history on its side, it's the soi disant orthodox who own the property, and the real-estate moguls all belong to Congregation Beth Israel).

Kingston actually has quite pleasant weather. The winters can be quite chill, a problem for those who don't like that sort of thing, but surprisingly sunny. It's a pleasure to be able to look up any side street and see Lake Ontario. Wolfe Island is anything but sensational, but it's nice to have it there, and we've had some pleasant family excursions there. There is a plethora of festivals in the summer, a special favourite being the Dusk Dances, which coincide (more or less) with Chaya's birthday.


One colleague, who used to live in New Jersey commented, "In New Jersey you knew the mob was running things. And now and then a bunch of people would go to prison, which gave you the feeling that at least someone was keeping a lid on things. Here, you see all the same signs of corruption, but no one ever goes to prison."

As with Queen's it's the Lucifer effect: The corruption of a magnificent potential is particularly dismaying. It would be hard to expect much of Edmonton or Hamilton, but Kingston has a marvelous location, decent weather, fascinating history (even if the citation of every hovel that Sir John A. ever signed a lease on can be a bit trying), a wealthy and renowned university, and a well-preserved historic city core.

Unfortunately, the city is dominated by real-estate interests, who have privatized most of the waterfront, with the bizarre result that there is no public beach near downtown Kingston, and what water access there is within several kilometres of the city centre is rocky and uninviting. Walking along the lake is possible only for short stretches, as most of the waterfront is taken up by highrise apartment buildings and hotels.


This may reflect above all my sheltered life, but I have never lived (or even spent any significant amount of time) in a city that is so miserably suited to bicycling, or so poorly served by public transportation. The buses run only every half hour or so, when they run at all (i.e., no evenings or Sundays for many routes). Even at that they run nearly empty, so it's hard to say there's much unmet demand. It's a cultural thing. While the great Canadian cities Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver are among the most liveable cities in the world, with public transportation and pedestrian and cycling amenities ranging from good to great, Canadians in small cities, towns, and the countryside are wild for internal combustion. (Just for comparison, over 80% of Kingstonians commute to work by private car, as compared with about 55% in my old hometown of Berkeley, CA.) There are large parts of Kingston that could not be reached in any way without travelling on highways without even shoulders for a bicycle. And without a private car you can forget about the much touted provincial parks and outdoor recreation areas. There is not even a token public transportation service to any of them.

Kingston is as well served as any place in Canada with intercity rail service, which is to say, hardly at all. You can travel from Kingston on Via Rail to Ottawa, Montreal or Toronto, and since all the trains run through Toronto, there are actually about 8 trains a day -- though with gaps of several hours in the middle of the day. The service is passable, even if the trains are dingy and old: Apparently they were purchased at fire-sale prices when the French SNCF modernised, without consideration for handicap access or the colder Canadian winters.

*A slight exaggeration. The favoured means of teaching the fairer sex their place at Queen's before the faculty unionised was to tenure them -- thus avoiding a procedural review and potential lawsuits -- while denying them promotion toassociate professor.