Royal Roads president succeeds by looking ahead
The news out of Royal Roads University was surprisingly upbeat this year. While most post-secondary schools contemplated budget cuts and layoffs, Royal Roads announced plans to add new programs, hire 30 additional staff and boost the number of full-time domestic students by 12 per cent.
The ambitious agenda came on the heels of three years of significant growth during which domestic student enrolment rose 22 per cent to 2,500.
“Royal Roads is earning its way and will continue to provide enormous value for the future to the people of B.C.,” president Allan Cahoon wrote in an opinion piece for the Times Colonist last May.
That optimistic outlook was a far cry from the situation that greeted Cahoon when he first arrived at Hatley Castle in 2007.
Back then, the faculty was at odds with the administration, the board had forced out the previous president and there were lingering doubts about the university’s prospects for survival.
The school needed someone to step in and heal serious rifts in the community, and Cahoon, then the acting president at the University of Regina, topped a list of 50 prospective candidates.
That Cahoon was in academia at all — let alone selected to stabilize an upstart university — would have seemed an unlikely prospect, even to him, many years earlier.
“I didn’t ever anticipate that I would be in universities,” Cahoon, 67, said in a recent interview.
Born into a Mormon family in Cardston, Alta., he and his siblings were strongly advised by their father to avoid following him into teaching.
“I was the youngest and by the time I was going through junior high and high school, he was teaching remedial math and remedial science to Grade 10 and 11 students,” Cahoon said. “So he would come home and just hate his job.”
“Whatever you do,” he would tell his son, “don’t become a teacher.”
A spotty student in those days, Cahoon did well in subjects he liked, eked by in others, and barely scraped into the University of Calgary. Once there, however, he discovered that his grades improved with each passing year.
“Well, if you’re kind of on a roll here, where do you stop?” he said.
He went on to obtain his master’s degree in international administration from Brigham Young University and his doctorate in public administration and public management from Syracuse University before returning to teach at the University of Calgary. He later moved to the University of Regina as vice-president research and international.
Along the way, he kept reassuring his dad: “I’m not a terminal academic. I’m not a terminal teacher.”
“I guess I didn’t see myself as a classic academic,” he said. “I really — and this is kind of why I ended up at Royal Roads — always believed that you needed to be able to make a difference, to make a connection or an impact.”
That belief likely stemmed, in part, from his upbringing, he said. Though no longer a Mormon today, Cahoon did missionary work in Chile in his youth and continues to be influenced by the religion’s emphasis on family, education, work ethic and the importance of giving back to the community.
To that end, his work over the years has included research to improve the experience of female executives in organizations, and support for programs that bridge faculties and encourage cross-disciplinary co-operation. He also headed the faculty association in Calgary.
So when the job at Royal Roads came open, he recalls a friend telling him: “If you believe in trying to make things better, why don’t you go with this experiment in terms of a university that’s actually trying to craft itself in a different way.”
Royal Roads was just 12 years old at the time, having started in 1995 after the federal government closed the military college there during a round of budget cuts.
Unlike more traditional universities, the school aims programs at mid-career professionals who pay more for tuition and primarily work toward graduate degrees in disaster and emergency management; human security and peace building; leadership; global management; and environmental practice.
Students alternate brief, but intensive, stints on campus with online studies.
The university maintains a small core faculty and hires associate professors to help launch new programs that respond quickly to market demand.
All of that seemed in jeopardy when Cahoon arrived as the school’s third president in 2007 to find a deep divide between the faculty and administration.
“I mean, he came in at a very difficult time,” said Rick Kool, an associate professor and current president of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C.
“Allan in fact did a very good job of helping to rebuild bridges between the faculty and the administration that had been really damaged by the previous administrations, and that damage was the reason we unionized.”
Cahoon eased tensions with the faculty, in part, by reaching out to Paz Buttedahl, who, as president of the faculty association, had led the move to unionize in 2006. The two shared a connection to Chile, Buttedahl having been born there and Cahoon working there as a missionary. Shortly before she died of cancer, Buttedahl helped Cahoon into his gown at the ceremony to install him as the new president.
“That was just very important for all of us,” said Kool, who served as the faculty association’s vice-president under Buttedahl. “Allan’s care and consideration for Paz was wonderful. It was really a balm for many of us.”
In addition, Cahoon brought a more collaborative approach to his dealings with faculty and staff, Kool said. “In truth, I don’t think he’s a person with a big ego, with great need for control. I think his instincts are much more as a collaborator. We don’t always agree on things and we might like to see more collaboration. But I don’t think his instincts are destructive instincts.”
Kenneth Christie, a professor and current faculty association president, said Cahoon also moved to stabilize the university financially and recently to expand its presence internationally.
“Overall, I’d say his scorecard’s pretty good. Certainly, when I joined Royal Roads there probably were some financial problems. I think we’ve overcome those and we’re doing fiscally very well and he’s partially responsible for it.”
Camosun College president Kathryn Laurin, who has known Cahoon since their days together at the University of Regina, credits him with establishing Royal Roads in an increasingly competitive post-secondary marketplace.
“Allan is a very future-focused thinker,” she said. “He understands what the next big thing is going to be ... I think that’s one of his strengths.”
Under Cahoon, the school has reached out to aboriginal students, as symbolized by the recent conversion of a waterfront boathouse into a new Aboriginal Learning and Cultural Centre.
The university also opened the Learning and Innovation Centre in 2011, the first major capital investment on the campus in its history.
Now in his second term, Cahoon said Royal Roads “is an experiment which the government needs to be proud of, and the people of B.C. need to be proud of.”
And for those who still look at the university and question its credibility, Cahoon says: “We’re so successful … it’s not even an issue for me.”
He argues that the school has to constantly earn its credibility. “It’s not entitled. It’s not privileged. I think that’s the wave of the future and the case needs to be made.”
Robert Clift, executive director of CUFA B.C., said Cahoon has brought Royal Roads to a point where its survival is no longer in question.
“It will have tough times like all public institutions do,” he said. “But I don’t think anybody doubts anymore that Royal Roads is going to be with us for a long, long time.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt anymore about Royal Roads’ education model. It’s successful. But for a lot of years there was a lot of doubt expressed about Royal Roads in that respect.
“Now the institution is trying figure out where it goes next, but it certainly is doing so with a much sounder foundation than was the case in 2006.”
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