Petter’s “neutrality” means disengagement

Image credit: Brandon Hillier
Image credit: Brandon Hillier
Image credit: Brandon Hillier

Academia is political. So is industry. But despite his focus on public-private partnerships, SFU President Andrew Petter strives to avoid acknowledging his — and SFU’s — place in Canada’s political landscape.

Petter’s “Statement on Rights of Free Speech and Peaceful Protest,” published last November, proclaimed SFU’s neutrality in the face of “legal matters that are before the courts.” This statement, in response to Kinder Morgan’s SLAPP suit against Lynne Quarmby, Alan Dutton, Stephen Collis, Mia Nissen, and Adam Gold, has prompted a near-ubiquitously negative response from SFU’s student groups. 

As part of the Graduate Student Caucus at SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts (SCA), I helped pen an open letter to Petter condemning his statement and calling for its revision. The letter from the SCA grad caucus supported open letters already sent by  SFU’s undergraduate and graduate student societies. In our small way, we at the SCA helped affirm the SFU student body’s conviction that Petter’s statement was wrong, and more specifically, that it demonstrated a widening rift between SFU’s Office of the President and its student population.

On January 8, the president issued us a reply, stating that “having explained my position in my November 7 statement and at two open sessions of Senate,” there was nothing further to add to the debate. At the December Senate meeting, by way of explanation, the President asserted that, “in the Chair’s view, it is not the role of the University to take [political] positions except where public policy bears on the core functions of the University and its operations.”

SFU has no stated mandate to remain politically neutral.

Petter is propagating an ideal of academic neutrality that has no basis in fact. SFU has no stated mandate to remain politically neutral. Petter can cite no documents, constitutions, laws, or even administrative convictions except those of his own formulation, emphatically repeated until their rhetorical force approaches verisimilitude.

Furthermore, even stated neutrality is not actual neutrality. SFU invests in oil companies and calls its art school the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. When an official such as the university president claims impartiality, what they really mean is that they favour the political action of rejecting explicit political action. Petter’s is a politics of money, not words.

But it is not the only  form of politics. After all, Simon Fraser does have a core mandate: it’s called the Mission Statement, and it’s posted on the Office of the President’s website. Unfortunately for Petter, it declares an agenda different from his own: Engaging students, engaging research, and engaging community. During the past year, Andrew Petter appears to have prioritized his special interest over all of the above, in the service of a misguided belief that it would not “be appropriate for the university to comment on legal matters that are before the courts.”

I, and many of SFU’s student representatives, believe that it is utterly appropriate for SFU to comment on legal matters, especially when they are before the courts. These are the matters that will shape SFU’s community, research, and ultimately, its students. These are the matters that SFU trains us to participate in. And, most importantly, these are the matters that SFU’s government already engages with by allocating its endowment money.  If it is appropriate to invest, it is appropriate to comment.

What we have in Andrew Petter, then, is not an apolitical administrator. There’s no such thing. Instead, we have an administrator with an agenda bifurcating from that of the school he claims to represent.

Small wonder Mr. President doesn’t like talking politics. Bigger wonder why he still likes talking “engagement.”