The Academic Pillar – Excerpt from November 2004 Veritas Magazine
[The question and answer session that follows is the result of the need to respond to numerous queries. I have fielded over last year or two about the College’s academic pillar. Dr John Scott Cowan, Principal of RMC and our newest honorary life member H24263, graciously agreed to be interviewed for this edition of VERITAS and to shed light on his view of how the pillar is doing and what lies ahead.]
Peter Dawe: When you became principal in July 1999, what was your greatest concern?
John Scott Cowan: Frankly, my greatest concern was the survival of the College. My perceptions were considerably shaped by having been one of the members of the Withers Study Group (1997-8), and then subsequently the chair of the Core Curriculum Committee (1998-9), which rewrote the undergraduate curriculum. On the one hand, I was convinced that my predecessor had done a superb job in the key area of insuring quality and had made important early strides in broadening the base of the College, with graduate programs evolving, with undertaking the LFTSP, and with the beginnings of distance and part time study. And the Commandant of the day was exceptionally well liked by the cadets and brought out the best in them. On the other hand, (and this was also a key finding of the Withers Report), Ottawa wasn’t really paying attention. Members of Armed Forces Council almost never visited RMC, didn’t know quite what they had here, and didn’t fully appreciate its crucial role in enabling the transformation they were hoping for. Furthermore, the College itself was still reeling a bit from the closure of the other two colleges and absorbing faculty and officer cadets displaced from them. It was not sure of itself, and many at the College seemed to be just waiting for bad news, of which there had been plenty in the 1990’s.
PD: What was the evolution from that point?
JSC: Well, a lot of processes occurred simultaneously. First, with the passage of the time, much of the bitterness from the closures has abated. It took a while, but the faculty acquired from the other colleges have become fully intertwined with all aspects of RMC life. The critical mass created by placing all the effort at RMC has allowed it to mature, to add programs, and to complete easily with comprehensive universities many times its size. At the same time, Armed Forces Council started taking note of and taking note of and taking responsibility for RMC. Its members visit often and are supportive. As a body, it meets regularly with our Board of Governors. And it tells us what it wants and needs.
One turning point seems to be the impact of the new Core Curriculum for officer cadets. The training schools and commands tell us it’s making a difference. The content of Core Curriculum also prompted the department to replace the Officer Professional Development Program (OPDP) with a new program of Officer Professional Military Education (OPME), run by RMC. It’s a sort of Core Curriculum “light” which must be completed by junior commissioned officers who are not from RMC. RMC grads are already deemed to have cleared those hurdles. This has three huge effects. First, it underscores the point that RMC adds value beyond what other universities can do. Secondly, it means that eventually all officers will have had some instruction from RMC. And thirdly, it implies that only RMC is trusted with quality control of certain key programs related to professionalism and judgement.
PD: How far has that evolution now gone?
JSC: Certainly, attitudes in the Department have changed. It’s widely recognized now that RMC cadets do in four years what takes about six years by other entry routes, plus some things the other never do. RMC is also a much more attractive posting for serving officers. In 1999, only 34 of my 48 officer billets for faculty were filled. Today, and for the last two years, 50 of the 48 have been filled. I’ve had to learn a sort of new math. Furthermore, the military faculty arriving at RMC are, on average, better qualified, so that today more than half either have a PhD or are in the last stages of a PhD program. Today officers complete hard to come here as military faculty; there are many more seeking the postings than we can take. With the billets filled, they are now about 25% of all regular faculty. At the same time, we were able to fix the pay problems for civilian faculty, improving recruiting and retention. Currently, 149 of 151 civilian faculty have the PhD, and perhaps two dozen are at the very top of what they do in the world.
With a bit of a lobbying effort, we also became eligible for research support from the federal granting councils, so that today an average RMC faculty members attracts more external research support than faculty at any other Canadian university that doesn’t have a medical school. And those millions are used to do research that is at least 90% defence relevant, and to train Master’s and PhD students who are mostly serving officers. So the multiplier effect on defence dollars is impressive.
The key was to become relevant to as many of the CF’s higher educational and research needs as possible. Today, with 980 officer cadets, 700 Master’s and PhD candidates, and some 6500 distance and part time students (almost all of them military), plus some non-degree programs, we meet a huge number of different DND needs. This is also a logical survival strategy: make yourself indispensable. There have been other synergies. The RMC Master of Defence Studies (MDS) degree, based on the platform of a modified Command and Staff Course at CFC, is a huge bargain for the department, in which modest reform and enhancement of a military requirement also yields a graduate degrees have full OCGS accreditation.
PD: These sound like good developments, but is there a risk that the full time undergraduate program for the officer cadet will get lost in the shuffle?
JSC: No risk of that. It’s still the key program. Furthermore, the entry standard for officer cadets has been rising. The cut-off for senior entry is not only much higher than five years ago; even most of the steep rise in 2003 (the Ontario “double cohort” year) persisted after that crisis was passed. They’re impressive; I’d sure hate to be competing with the officer cadets we get today.
And I’m completely persuaded of the long-term value of the four-pillar officer cadet program. Let me give you a peculiar and very academic-style example. After five and a half years as Principal, I’ve now selected all of the currently serving deans. I don’t use being an ex-cadet as a selected all of the currently serving deans. I don’t use being an ex-cadet as a selection criterion, and only about 10% of the civilian faculty are ex-cadets. But of the six persons holding the rank of dean or equivalent, four are ex-cadets. Why? Because they know how to get things done.
I think that DND understands that the only way RMC can be efficient is to use the same key brains trust of about 200 people to do it all: ROTP/RETP, UTPNCM, UTPO, graduate programs, distance and part time outreach, specialized programs, and research. Drop any one and you probably can’t afford any of them. It’s a very Canadian model, but other countries are now looking to copy it.
PD: What remains to be done?
JSC: The biggest remaining challenge is to implement Withers Report Recommendation 5. That recommendation is for the College to produce 35-40% of the intake of junior officers into the Canadian Forces. At the moment our output is about 28-29% of steady state requirement. Today, most of the key elements to enable us to move to the 40% are in place, and there is great support in Ottawa to do so. A few pieces remain to be resolved. But getting to about 300 officer cadets graduating a year is critical for the CF, and critical for the College in terms of demonstrating an efficiency that will keep even the accounts happy. And it’s the right thing to do. So look ahead to perhaps 1200-1300 officer cadets at RMC a few years from now.
Other challenges relate mostly to the consolidation of efforts already underway. Both Graduate Studies and Continuing Studies have grown so fast that they are a bit disorganized. Hopefully, the rate of growth will slow enough to let us catch our breath and make the management systems somewhat robust. Even so, I can see graduates as the part-time programs mature. Another challenge is keeping our 17-subject liberal education Core Curriculum of subjects essential to officership up to date.
We continue to add unique degrees, when asked. The MSc and MA in space operations, the intelligence stream in War Studies, and the logistics-oriented MBA are recent cases in point. We are not traditional university snobs. We believe that “university” implies a standard, not a restrictive list of traditional subjects. We build them to a high standard. And we deliver them with passion. TDV