by Andrea Gunn
On March 26, Jeffrey Simpson, Arts’71, LLD’05, will receive the 2014 Agnes Benidickson Award from the Ottawa Branch of the Queen’s University Alumni Association, in recognition of his distinguished work as a journalist and his volunteer contributions to both Queen’s and the Ottawa community.
The national affairs columnist of The Globe and Mail and author of eight books, Jeffrey’s interests in politics and journalism were honed at Queen’s, both inside the classroom and out. A student of political science and history, he was also active in campus activities, including the Debating Club.
Knowing he wanted to pursue journalism as a career, in first year, Jeffrey approached The Queen’s Journal to volunteer. He was rebuffed.
“I was deemed not good enough for The Queen’s Journal,” he laughs. “[At the time], theJournal was under the control of something called the Free Socialist Movement, a group of Marxist-oriented students…. And I didn’t fit the mold, as it were, so I was actively discouraged from continuing my association. So, I marched down to the CFRC studio in the basement of Carruthers Hall, waltzed in, and introduced myself.”
Thus began four years as an on-air broadcaster for CFRC Radio. Jeffrey co-hosted a weekly news show on international and national affairs and then started calling the Gaels football games, making a name for himself as “The Voice of the Golden Gaels.”
“In 1970 -71,” he says, “there were only two campus radio stations in the country that had licenses to broadcast over the public airwaves….Ryerson and Queen’s. Many campuses had radio stations but they were in-house; they only broadcast inside campus buildings. So you couldn’t turn on your radio as an ordinary citizen and listen. But Queen’s had been given this radio license back in the mists of time, so as a consequence, you had to try to keep the standards up, because you were being listened to by the broader Kingston public. So we tried, in our very imperfect and amateurish way, as the football broadcasters, to do as good a job as we could. We sat up in the old rickety George Richardson stadium broadcast booth, and every time the students would do an Oil Thigh, the whole stands would shake.….We had a great time!”
Jeffrey also got involved in campus governance, becoming one of the first elected student representatives on University Senate. He was a member of Senate for three years, “dealing with all the big issues,” including the politically charged Chuck Edwards case of 1970-71.
Jeffrey's Queen's yearbook photo
Those experiences in university governance as a student, says Jeffrey, “planted seeds of interest in my head about how institutions operate. I’ve always had a tremendous respect for universities. I’ve been able to teach and lecture at many of them. And I find them fascinating and difficult places to govern. They are really hard places to govern.”
As an alumnus, Jeffrey continued to contribute to Queen’s University governance, sitting first on University Council, then on the Board of Trustees. And while he sees his past role on the Board as one of a “back-bencher,” he is proud of two contributions he made. The first was during a time of intense budget constraints in the 1990s. Jeffrey, with fellow Board members, made the case for Queen’s administration to refrain from making across-the-board budget cuts. Instead, they advised, the university needed to identify its strengths and weaknesses, and make budget decisions accordingly. The committee had modest success with this approach. While Jeffrey feels their work didn’t achieve all it could have, he draws on the governance lessons learned for his current volunteer work, on the Board of Governors of the University of Ottawa.
His other contribution was his work, in 1993, to find Queen’s next principal. Jeffrey was recruited by Chancellor Agnes Benidickson for a working committee. “It was a 20-person group, with Agnes chairing it, and we worked pretty damn hard over a long period of time. We ended up unanimously selecting Bill Leggett, and that proved to be a good choice!”
Jeffrey began writing for The Globe and Mail in 1974, first covering the city hall beat in Toronto, then moving on to Quebec politics. In 1977, he became a member of the paper’s Ottawa bureau. Still based in Ottawa, he has been the newspaper’s national affairs columnist since 1984. He’s writing, in spring 2014, on the very same topic - Quebec elections and the notion of sovereignty for Quebec -- that he wrote about for his very first Globe assignment in 1973 (and many times since.) So, does he get tired of covering the same political issues year after year?
“There are some issues which keep coming back like Wack-A-Mole,” Jeffrey says, “but when I first took this job, I phoned the man who, in effect, started this column, George Bain. He gave me a lot of sage advice. He said, ‘When you ever get depressed, remember, this job is like being given two tickets in the front row of the best show in town.’ And I think that’s true. There is an endless cavalcade of issues, challenges, problems, and drama.The whole of the human condition is on display, which is why I’ve always loved writing about public affairs and politics.”
And would he ever consider entering public service himself? “I’m a born observer,” says Jeffrey. “I think if I had gone into public life, I could have been effective to a certain extent, but I think the imposition of the party discipline on a guy like me – I think I would have chafed against that. So I’m very happy to have made a modest contribution as an observer, rather than as a participant.”
The Chuck Edwards case
In 1969, Chuck Edwards, a PhD student and member of the Free Socialist Movement, charged he was forced out of his Chemical Engineering program because of his political activities. “This became a great cause célebre on campus for the FSM, so the university set up a special tribunal to investigate this,” says Jeffrey. “I wasn’t on the tribunal but I used to go and listen to all the testimony.” The tribunal, chaired by the Faculty of Law’s Bernie Adell, found that Mr. Edwards’ allegations were without merit. University Senate then had to decide how to deal with Edwards. “I remember really wrestling with this hard, because I was a student rep,” says Jeffrey. “The issue was sufficiently high profile that they moved the meeting when this matter was going to be discussed from Richardson Hall over to the Student Union building, to the large dining hall there, so that more people could attend. CFRC was broadcasting the thing live; it was pretty big stuff. I gave a long speech and said that on balance, the Adell report got it right from the testimony that I heard and, in fact, these allegations were without foundation, but I think I argued for clemency. I don’t think I won that argument [Edwards was censured by Senate for failing to use the appropriate channels for his grievance] but I remember [fellow student senator] Brian Scully, who was a law student, coming up to me and saying “Are you going to be a lawyer?” and I said, “No,” and he said “Well, we learn these things in advocacy class, and you just laid out the textbook case for clemency!”
The Edwards case brought to light the fact that Queen’s didn’t have clear procedures on grievances. Jeffrey was recruited for a Senate Committee on Grievance, Discipline and Related Matters for the university, which in 1971, published a detailed report with recommendations for formal handling of grievances. Chuck Edwards was invited to re-apply for admission as a student, but declined.