Watts is one of Canada's leading experts on federalism and served as Queen's 15th Principal from 1974 until 1984.
Born in Japan to Canadian Anglican missionary parents, he was educated at the University of Toronto (BAH 1952) and attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship (BA 1954, MA 1959, DPhil 1962).
Watts came to Queen's in 1955 as a lecturer in philosophy, but transferred to the Department of Political and Economic Science (see Political Studies and Economics) in 1961. His early years at Queen's were broken up by occasional leaves to study at Oxford. Watts quickly took a close interest in the administration and students of Queen's, serving as a residence don in McNeill House and helping to plan the many residences built during the 1960s.
He was selected Dean of Arts and Science in 1969 and Principal in 1974. At 45, he was the youngest man to take over the Principalship since George Monro Grant almost 100 years earlier. His term coincided with a reduction in government funding to universities. His decade at the reins was thus, in his words, a time of "constraint, consolidation, and constructive change."
Nevertheless, several buildings were expanded during his term and in 1978 work was finished on Botterell Hall, a nine-story medical sciences building located next to Kingston General Hospital. Watts also launched a campaign to cut costs without hurting the quality of teaching or research at the University. Everyone on campus was encouraged to submit ideas and soon initiatives like "Turn Off for Queen's" resulted in substantial savings in energy costs and other areas. Towards the end of his second five-year term, Watts laid the plans for the highly successful Queen's National Scholars program to attract outstanding young faculty members, and also for the establishment of the School of Policy Studies.
While the number of students levelled out during this time, the number of applications to Queen's continued to soar. This allowed Queen's to develop the highest admission standards in Ontario at the time.
Watts' main academic interest is the comparative study of federal political systems. Since retiring as Principal in 1984, he has served as director of Queen's Institute of Intergovernmental Relations, senior adviser to the federal government on constitutional affairs, and consultant to evolving governments all over the world, including Canada, Kenya, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom.
He has also published several books, including New Federations: Experiments in the Commonwealth, Multi-Cultural Societies and Federalism, Administration in Federal Systems, and Comparing Federal Systems.
Watts has received five honorary degrees and became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1979 and a Companion in 2000.