Rebirth of Royal Roads: More than a decade after closing as a military academy, a university has bloomed and life-long learning continues

Times Colonist (Victoria)
Saturday, January 28, 2006
Page: B1 / FRONT
Section: Business
Byline: Carla Wilson
Column: Carla Wilson
Source: Times Colonist

No more mud runs. No more pillbox hats. No more orders shouted across parade grounds.
Royal Roads Military College is gone but ivy still winds up the stones of historic Hatley Castle in Colwood. Bright blue peacocks still strut through the grounds where towering trees dwarf visitors and visiting children scamper on paths through formal gardens.

A decade after the federal government closed the military college as part of a $7-billion cut in defence spending, learning is still happening here. And in the mix of its new life as a university, you can find former college staff and military cadets.

The vista for the former home to the Dunsmuir family and cadets looks over Esquimalt Lagoon. These days, Royal Roads University combines the old -- this is a national heritage site -- with the new, through the university's life-long learning philosophy, many masters degree programs, on-line education system and international connections and partnerships.

Daniel Hardy, 33, is finishing his research project for a master degree in Human Security and Peacebuilding from Royal Roads University. He is now in Pakistan for three months as security adviser with Care International helping survivors of last fall's devastating earthquake.

The former military officer was also in the college's final graduating class in spring 1995. "I certainly look back on those days with nostalgia. There is a lot of affection for the people and for the institution," he said in a telephone interview from Islamabad.

After serving with Edmonton-based Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) Regiment and going to Bosnia and Sierra Leone, Hardy decided on a different direction and was attracted to the security program and the idea of attending his old college.

Jim Bayer, RRU's dean of the faculty of social and applied sciences, had been on sabbatical from the military college, where he had headed up the department of history and political economy, when he learned it was shutting down.

Given a short timeline from the province, Bayer was part of a planning team that created a vision that endures today for a flexible, applied professional school catering to market demands, and serving those who were not being served by traditional universities, such as mid-career professionals. Learners can work while they earn degrees.

Although the Internet was young then its potential was recognized as a way to increase student numbers on a facility suited to 300 cadets. Students today typically start with short-term, intensive residencies at the school and then learn online.

The planning team proposed turning the final two academic years for undergraduates into one 12-month stretch and believed there was a market for that. "It worked out absolutely perfectly," Bayer said.

Bayer never questioned the value of preserving Royal Roads as a university and said team members worked well together as they focused on their goal. "That was our one chance." He credits many others who worked hard to create RRU.

Their design was accepted and the province agreed to $20 million in funding, to be matched by the federal government. In 2001, the federal government announced a further $10.8 million.

Bayer said the planning process was a lot of fun but it wasn't easy. "We used to have what we called night tremors" about the project's challenges.

"How many people can honestly say they have had an opportunity to do this?"
The university opened for business with the University of Victoria and Camosun College courses in 1995 and offered its own programs a year later. RRU was a leader in marketing itself to learners.

Bayer, who was used to being saluted by busy cadets, chuckles at the shock on the first day of classes at seeing RRU students smoking, loitering outside a building and relaxing on the lawns.

There is no tenure at RRU. Flexibility is key to its success. Needs and wants of students change as society changes, said Hugh Gordon, first RRU Chancellor and board chairman.

RRU president Richard Skinner said the university developed programs that had not been traditionally offered before, crossing over disciplines. To make it work, that also meant higher than typical tuition rates. "The real miracle is that the place is not only here but it seems to be flourishing," he said. "We tapped into a market that had not been well-served."

About two-thirds of master degree graduates either start a business, get a new job or promotion or change careers, he said. They typically have a high rate of employment as well.

Because RRU offers a different model of education, it does not normally find itself listed when various organizations rank schools, including masters of business administration programs, he said. It does, however, belong to a number of post-secondary associations. Courses include management, leadership, environment and sustainability, conflict resolution and communication.

At just a decade old, Royal Roads relies on word of mouth from graduates, Skinner said. It has carved out a niche among discerning learners at a time when our population is aging. "Here we are serving a distinctive group of people."

With negotiations with a private firm taking place for a new hotel-conference centre on the property, Skinner is also hoping to see a $21 million academic building constructed that would permit doubling student numbers in the next several years to 4,200. A phased proposal goes to the province in four weeks.

Plans are also being made to raise money through new programs and services to meet the university's $20-million obligation to maintain and repair historic buildings and grounds.

Dan Spinner, Royal Roads University Foundation executive director, said a strategic plan for the future is being prepared, focusing on capital needs and funding for research chairs. In this fiscal year, the foundation has already raised $2.5 million, surpassing its goal of $1.5 million.

Looking ahead, Skinner said as demand for skilled, talented labour rises globally, ways must be found to incorporate learning into everyday lives.

Despite a reliance of computers, RRU still believes that learning is a social enterprise, he said.

RRU is working with other institutions to offer courses in other countries, hoping to foster a global perspective in its learners. Bayer and Gordon concur that this is a direction that RRU should pursue.

Bayer said the next level is to develop global learning in a way that has not been done before. Pilot initiatives have been tried in Thailand and Uganda.

This can mean learners taking courses in other countries, with students who live there, so that all participants learn about each other's customs, cultures, and develop professional contacts.

• Photo: Debra Brash, TC / Jim Bayer, social and applied sciences dean, was part of the transition from military academy to university: 'How many people can honestly say they have had an opportunity to do this?'
• Colour Photo: RRU president Richard Skinner
• Photo: 1986: Graduating cadets march on the parade grounds with stately Hatley Castle as a backdrop. The federal government bought the seaside property in 1937 and operated training for the army, navy and air force. From 1968 to 1995, it was called Royal Roads Military College.
• Photo: Debra Brash, Times Colonist / 2006: Clockwise left, Scott Ackerman of Calgary, d'Arcy Monaghan of Moose Jaw, Sask., Sukhi Bahia of Richmond, Lisa Mina of Oakville, Ont., Andria Ink of Vancouver and Leslie Basham of Victoria, represent the new breed of students at Royal Roads.
Idnumber: 200601280096
Edition: Final
Story Type: Column
Length: 1080 words