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President Steenkamp's installation address June 18, 2019

June 18, 2019
Tags: President

Your Honour, the Honourable Janet Austin, Madam Chancellor, members of the Board of Governors, Chiefs, honoured guests, graduates, faculty, students and staff, proud families and friends.

Thank you. I am honoured and humbled by your trust in me to serve as the president of Royal Roads University.

I want to begin by acknowledging that Royal Roads University is located on the traditional lands of the Xwsepsum (Esquimalt) and Lkwungen (Songhees) ancestors and families.

This land has been part of the fabric of the life of Indigenous communities for thousands of years. It is with gratitude that we now learn and work here, where the past, present and future of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, faculty and staff come together.

I would also like to acknowledge the debt I owe to my predecessors, in particular to Allan Cahoon for his thoughtful leadership and stewardship of the university over the past 12 years.

And I want to thank the university leaders who’ve offered me so much support, guidance and inspiration over the years. I’d especially like to mention Andrew Petter, Martha Piper and Santa Ono: all of them examples to me of what post-secondary leadership means in action.

Nobody gets anywhere on their own and I owe most thanks to my family and friends, especially to my daughter Hannah and my partner Brad.

Drew Faust, former President of Harvard, noted that installation speeches are a peculiar genre. “They are by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about. Or, we might more charitably dub them expressions of hope unchastened by the rod of experience.”

With that in mind, let me offer a few unchastened expressions of hope for the future of Royal Roads University.

This has always been an extraordinary institution.

There’s nothing quite like us anywhere. We’re small and focused: providing undergraduate and graduate programs in applied and professional areas. We take our cues from the demands of the labour market and the lifelong learning needs of our community.

We’ve broken new ground with an innovative blended learning model. One that combines intensive learning on campus with online learning — whether that’s somewhere in Canada or anywhere around the world.

Our learning, teaching and research are all about change: changing lives as our students learn, and changing societies as we see knowledge translated into policies and practices.

And all of you graduates here this afternoon — about to join that community of Royal Roads changemakers — we could not be prouder of you. Of the hard work you’ve done to get here. And the change you’ll make when you walk out those doors.

To many people, change is uncomfortable and bewildering. But Royal Roads embraces it, because we know change is the only way to a better future. Machiavelli famously said that “Change has no constituency” — he was wrong. We are its constituency.

And yet for an organization as focused on change, we’re grounded in both place and history.

The campus at Royal Roads University is a place deeply rooted in time, and in the history of our province.

We walk, teach, learn and work on the ancestral lands of the Coast Salish people for which these lands provided food, medicine, clothing and housing.

Our centrepiece is a castle constructed by a coal baron, Premier and Lieutenant-Governor — for better and for worse, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate avatar for the colonial side of BC history.

For 55 years, our grounds helped train Canada’s military officers, starting in the Second World War through to 1995, with the founding of our present-day university.

And today every student who comes here can tell you that the experience of their education is inextricably bound up in this land and location.

One of the great pleasures of my first few months in office has been to talk with faculty, staff and students, including the people responsible for stewarding and shaping this place.

What struck me most in my first few days on the job was the incredible passion people feel for Royal Roads. It was hard for me to tell whether someone had been here for 20 days or 20 years, a remarkable testimony to the enduring commitment and enthusiasm for the university.

Every gardener and groundskeeper I’ve met speaks with so much pride about their work, and the role they play in curating and cultivating the beauty of our surroundings.

Each gardener is responsible for a particular area, and they treat their area the way an artist treats a canvas. They carefully make those precise choices, sometimes deceptively small ones, that contribute to the much larger impact of the whole.

And that’s a pretty good way to describe the impact our university is having here and, in the world at large.

Royal Roads University is small in numbers only. Our influence dramatically outstrips our size.

One of the key signs of leadership is when you see others following. And today we see a broad range of other universities adopting — and adapting — many of our innovations. We have played a role in shaping the future of education well beyond our campus borders.

Now, I want us to play that role again — and not confined to education alone.

I have the privilege of taking on the presidency at a time when Royal Roads has an unparalleled opportunity to lead and to magnify our impact in the world.

I say “opportunity,” and it is, but there’s tremendous urgency to it.

We’re facing challenges today as serious and daunting as any that humanity has ever had to confront.

Our economy is transforming at a pace that makes the Industrial Revolution feel like continental drift.

And a growing share of the labour driving the economy is held not by people, but by machines: sophisticated algorithms, complex software and monumental databases, working in concert to constantly learn and improve.

A McKinsey Global Institute study last fall predicted that that shift is going to push one-third of Canadian workers out of their jobs over the next 15 years.

That puts a greater and greater onus on us to equip people with the skills they need to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

And at least as important, it means shifting the kind of skills we teach, toward those literacies and competencies that aren’t easily replaced by algorithms, automation and AI.

And then there’s our most pressing challenge: the climate crisis, an existential threat around the world. Addressing it and, increasingly, adapting to it, demands coordinated action at every level from the personal to the global.

That requires a robust civil society and adept, creative leadership. But the challenges here, too, are daunting.

We’re under sustained assault by forces opposed to the very idea of civil society and liberal democracy. Populists and demagogues find a hungry, eager audience among people who feel that economic transformation is leaving them behind. Nostalgia for past glory and privilege finds expression in the strident calls of exclusionary nationalism.

These are big, big challenges. Any one of them could legitimately demand our full attention — but they have converged at a single moment in time. Our moment. The choices made by our governments, our businesses, our people, our institutions and, yes, our graduates will have repercussions that long outlast us.

And that’s what makes this not only an opportunity but an obligation. An obligation to use the resources entrusted to us — our people, ideas and assets — to tackle challenges and heal divisions.

We are accountable to the future — and that, by the way, makes us especially accountable to our students, because they are our central purpose and our most important legacy.

So wherever Royal Roads can offer particular expertise, wherever we excel, we have a duty to step forward.

And the Royal Roads University I see us becoming is one that does just that. A university facing, and focused on, the future. Asking not just “what’s next” but what should be next. How we can journey together toward a future that is prosperous, sustainable and just.

And that applies to everything we do, in every program, with every course, through every graduate.

It means finding our opportunities to make change: those key interventions where our expertise has leverage, often in multiple spheres.

We also have a responsibility to equip our students with the tools to navigate the rapidly-shifting terrain of work. We talk about a Royal Roads education as life-changing — and it certainly is — but that makes it sound like a single event in someone’s life.

Yet we know that increasingly, the workplace will demand that people learn and relearn new skills, reinvent their careers, rebuild their expertise.

And if we sit on our record of past innovation — allow ourselves to be flattered by way others have emulated us — we’re inviting those others to surpass us.

How can we do more, not just to change lives, but to be integral to them — to be a key part of people’s careers throughout that constant transition?

Royal Roads University’s innovations in blended learning and mid-career education are a big part of what spurred me to become its president, yet we too need to change.

The education we offer should train not just skilled workers but problem-solvers and change-leaders.

Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern University, puts it this way in his book Robot-Proof: “Instead of educating college students for jobs that are about to disappear under the rising tide of technology, twenty-first-century universities should liberate them from outdated career models and give them ownership of their own futures…Universities must broaden their reach to become engines for lifelong learning.”

In essence this is my vision: to make Royal Roads University an engine of life-long learning.

We have transformed education before; it’s time for us to do it again.

So as I contemplate the next five years as your president, I’m setting some milestones: goals by which I’ll measure our shared success on three broad fronts:

First, around learning and innovation: I want Royal Roads University to become synonymous with innovation in teaching, learning and research in Canada. We have a big opportunity with the proposed new West Shore campus, and, working in partnership with Camosun College, UVic and SD 62, we will bring all the formidable imagination and ingenuity at our disposal to bear on it.

I want us to be the university of choice for lifelong learning and for those looking to advance their careers and take on greater leadership roles. And I want us to be a leader in interdisciplinary education that tackles real-world challenges, at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Second, I want Royal Roads to lead on equity, inclusion and reconciliation. We will show the rest of Canada that reconciliation is not just about symbolic gestures, but a way of living and working and understanding the world and each other – living by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations, and living up to our commitments under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: In what we teach; in who teaches, and how; in who learns here; and in the very nature of this place itself.

And third, I want Royal Roads to lead on engagement with the world around us.

We will go beyond our walls and into the community as a strong partner and collaborator in the West Shore, southern Vancouver Island and southwest BC. And we’ll be a sought-after partner nationally and internationally.

As part of that engagement, Royal Roads will lead the country in embracing the goals at the heart of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We have a lot to offer, especially around goals like climate action, quality education, and peace, justice and strong institutions.

And at a time when multilateralism is the target of so much misinformation and hostility, a time of narrow nationalism, protectionism and turning inward, embracing this kind of international collective action carries its own special power.

Above all else, I want us to make the difference in the world that only Royal Roads can make.

In his book, The Ingenuity Gap, Thomas Homer-Dixon talks about the need to make key interventions at pivotal points. Interventions with an impact that vastly outstrips their individual magnitude.

The world needs smart, nimble organizations collaborating together to identify those interventions and make them happen. And I believe nobody is better positioned to be such an organization than Royal Roads University.

I’ve talked today about the future. Today that future seems less certain than I can ever remember. The state of discourse, the trajectory we appear to be following, signs that we may be losing the capacity and even the will to change it through collective action  — these are all worrying.

But we have solved enormous problems before. We survived the arms race of the late 20th century. We came together to end the seemingly intractable dangers of acid rain and ozone depletion.

The challenges we’re facing are every bit as daunting — but I have faith in human imagination, and our shared pursuit of knowledge.

We have a choice.

We can allow the magnitude and urgency of the challenge to discourage us into inaction… or we can let them give ourselves license to think bigger. In the words of Greta Thunberg, “we can't save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change. And it has to start today.”

And if we genuinely believe in the transformative power of education, then the true power of lifelong learning becomes clear.

Because a constantly changing world demands constant transformation and continual reinvention. It demands reinvention of our skills, our careers, and it demands reinvention of our universities.

That reinvention is not the work of a distant hypothetical future. It’s our work. Today.

Graduates, colleagues, honoured guests: There’s a good reason we call our institution life-changing. We come to Royal Roads — as students, as staff, as faculty — to change ourselves. So that we can then change the world.

It’s my very great privilege to join you in making those changes: through the way we operate as a campus, through our research and teaching, and through the achievements of Royal Roads graduates around the world.

For that, I thank you: for your support, your advice, your collaboration and for this opportunity to help shape the future, together.