The federal government is taking more direct control in appointing the next principal of the Royal Military College of Canada, leaving the school’s own board of governors without its customary say in who gets chosen.
Last month, a committee struck to find candidates was disbanded at the urging of the Privy Council Office, the hub of the federal public service. A new, smaller group has taken its place, dominated by government and military voices and without a single professor.
Searches for past principals at the RMC, the country’s only federal university, have typically been led by members of the board of governors and select professors. But the federal government has changed the rules, leaving faculty frustrated at being shut out of a key decision in the school’s academic future, and worried good candidates may be scared off.
The change further saps power from the RMC board, and potentially the principal’s office, which has seen its authority diminish as a deficit-fighting federal government asserts greater control over the Kingston university. Last month, an independent panel of RMC alumni published a report outlining a civil service that seems intent on running the school like a government department rather than a university, as professors’ promotions were frozen and the school began cutting 32 academic jobs.
“I was shocked” at the PCO taking over the search, said Jean-Marc Noël, an RMC professor and president of the Canadian Military Colleges Faculty Association. “This is completely offside in terms of what a university would do. Our concern is that, obviously, they can parachute [in] anybody they want.”
Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who also serves as the RMC’s chancellor, played down the shift. “I’m not sure that there has been a change in the process,” Mr. MacKay said, adding that the government and RMC board have always both been involved. “The board will put forward a name or names and ultimately the government will decide.”
The 139-year-old university has long steered its highly regarded academic wing under an umbrella of federal oversight. Authority for most governance decisions legally belongs to Canadian Forces officials, but until recently the military was known to follow advice from the principal and board, who called most shots on academic programs and hiring.
According to RMC’s terms of reference, “The Board is responsible for recommending candidates to the Minister of National Defence for appointment to the position of Principal.” So board chair Don Macnamara convened a search committee to find a successor for Joel Sokolsky, the current principal whose term ends on July 1. The group, which included multiple professors and board members, first met in January.
The last two RMC principals were hired by similar panels, and search consulting firm Renaud Foster had already begun gathering the new committee’s input when members were told they wouldn’t be needed after all. Officials at the PCO took charge, saying the search didn’t follow the rules for key Governor-in-Council appointments – the process used to choose the heads of government agencies and Crown corporations, as well as the RMC principal. The PCO now leads a new five-person committee.
“It certainly troubles me,” said Philippe Constantineau, an RMC professor who sat on the now-disbanded search committee. “I mean, who is vetting those [candidates’] CVs? You need someone who is a university professor to actually vet CVs for such a position.”
John Cowan, a former RMC principal who was appointed by a board-led committee, hopes that when future principals are chosen, the school itself will once again have more input.
“It is not an ideal arrangement because a little more direct faculty input is useful,” he said. “But it’s by no means an impossible arrangement.”
In an e-mail responding to questions about why the search process was altered and who would now lead it, a spokesman for the Department of National Defence said, “The Government recognizes the significance of the role of the Principal of the Royal Military College of Canada as the key academic leader” and aims “to appoint a highly-qualified individual to the position.”
“If I were being considered for the job, I’d certainly be nervous about this rigid assertion of authority by the PCO,” said Jim Turk, president of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, which commissioned last month’s independent report on RMC governance.
Last week, Dr. Turk and Dr. Noël sent a joint letter to Mr. MacKay protesting the PCO-led process, arguing it “violates the fundamental practices of every university in Canada with respect to the hiring of its executive head.”
The nine-member committee once included:
- Two professors
- Five board members, RMC board chair Don Macnamara
- One representative from the human-resources arm of the federal public service
- The Royal Military College’s Commandant, a high-ranking military official who oversees the school
The five-member committee now includes:
- One representative from the Privy Council Office
- One representative from the Prime Minister’s Office
- One representative from Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s office
- RMC’s Commandant
- Mr. Macnamara, who lobbied to be included
With a report from Campbell Clark