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Ottawa’s cost-cutting casts shadow over Royal Military College’s future

A cadet from the Royal Military College of Canada walks by a canon near the Parade square at the campus of RMC in Kingston, Ontario on Monday April 8, 2013

Lars Hagberg/The Globe and Mail

The 139-year-old Royal Military College of Canada's authority is under siege, and the school's leaders are powerless to protect it.

Professors' promotions have been frozen, programs are being scaled back, and dozens of academic jobs are in jeopardy – all at the hands of a federal government asserting control over the school as it grapples with dramatic fiscal shortfalls.

Those moves at the RMC, the country's only federally run university, have spurred growing concerns that its academic quality could be under threat, and that a climate of cutbacks might drive the school back toward its technical roots. The measures have also revealed fault lines in the governance of the school, which has tried to reconcile academic independence with federal oversight for decades.

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The Kingston-based academy, founded with a training school ethos and an inaugural class of 18 "gentleman cadets," has evolved into a highly respected university offering 1,200 cadets each year a bastion of broad, liberal learning. That approach gained urgency after military scandals in the mid-1990s gave Canada a black eye on the world stage. But a new report, to be released Tuesday, argues RMC's leaders have had their power to shape its academic experience slowly stripped away.

The report, penned by an independent panel of three accomplished RMC alumni, says civil servants are running the school more like a government department than a university, damaging morale and making it harder to attract and keep leading academics from civilian universities.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers commissioned the arm's-length report, which makes 35 detailed recommendations, including giving the RMC principal authority over a separate academic budget outside Department of National Defence influence, addressing a "lack of trust" in governance, and giving the board of governors more sway and greater representation from within the school.

"The recommendations that we've made, I believe, are ones that are necessary to take the college to the next stage, to be a more viable academic institution, a university," said co-author Elinor Sloan, a professor in international relations at Carleton University and former defence analyst.

The RMC's broad, liberal university education distinguishes it from other leading military schools like West Point in the United States and RMA Sandhurst in Britain, but also creates a unique tension: As a federal university, it operates in a delicate alliance of three starkly different bureaucracies – academia, the military and the civil service – which have managed to coexist as military brass and civil servants heeded most advice from school administrators.

Scandals like the 1993 beating death of a Somali teenager at the hands of Canadian soldiers led to a 1997 review of Canadian Forces education, which reinforced the need for more degree-holding officers who could better handle difficult ethical decisions in unfamiliar, high-stress environments. "Education in the Canadian Forces became ever more important after Somalia," Dr. Sloan said.

The university has since offered programs of almost unparalleled breadth, where history majors must take calculus, economics and chemistry, while engineers write essays in the humanities, for which the school has been widely praised.

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"Part of me wants to say, okay, I jump out of airplanes and play with guns, swear and pee outside. Why do I need a master's degree?" said Steve Nash, a retired lieutenant-colonel, RMC graduate and co-author of the CAUT report, in an interview prior to being appointed to the commission. "But in another sense, if I'm going to command at a certain level, on behalf of a lawfully elected government in another place in the world, it is not unreasonable to expect that I can elevate my intellectual game."

Many within the school worry it is now being driven down a more technical path. A government review requiring millions of dollars in savings, published last April, seeks to refocus "academic programs to reflect core military requirements … in such disciplines as War Studies, Strategic Studies" and engineering, while "Non-core-related programs at the colleges will be reduced to the minimum necessary to provide an adequate liberalization."

The government has also begun a "Work Force Adjustment" process expected to cut 42 academic jobs at RMC over three years, and its human-resources arm has withheld professors' promotions first approved in 2010 until RMC agrees to promotion quotas.

The CAUT report argues such measures run counter to proper university governance. It notes the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which counts RMC as a member, requires that academic staff have authority over programs, while the board of governors controls finances, administration and hiring. But RMC's board "presently has no authority over financial matters and only limited authority over academic matters," the report says.

That arrangement rarely caused problems in past years, said John Scott Cowan, RMC's principal from 1999 to 2008 after a long career at civilian universities. Legally, RMC's board could only advise the military chain of command on most decisions, but military officials were typically "hugely sympathetic," and tradition dictated that they "follow [the board and principal's] advice slavishly."

"That was fine for a long time," said Dr. Cowan, who describes himself as "pushy" with influence in academic as well as Defence circles. Now, "the hunt for money" combined with the "increasing influence of the civilian human-resources organization in the workings of the College" have shifted the balance of authority, Dr. Cowan argues, and "there are some problems."

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"[The HR officials] have become a noxious, dominant influence," he said, and he feels his successor as RMC's principal, political science professor Joel Sokolsky, "just got run over."

Dr. Sokolsky declined an interview request as he was not yet familiar with the CAUT report, while a spokesperson for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who serves as the RMC's chancellor, said the university and Canadian Forces will "take the necessary time to study the report and consider its recommendations before providing further comment."

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