Reflecting on 50 years of SFU

Photo by Lisa Dimyadi

The Peak: I’m going to start with a tough one, if you don’t mind.

President Petter: Whatever you want to throw at me.

P: Egg or avocado?

[After a moment of confusion, it was established that we were talking about the landmark sculpture in SFU’s AQ gardens, and not Petter’s dietary preferences.]

Petter: I’ve always seen it as an egg, but I don’t want to denigrate those people who see it as an avocado.

P: SFU earned its reputation as the ‘radical university’ when it first opened its doors. Do we still live up to that reputation? How has the university evolved?

Petter: I think SFU’s history of being a radical campus has very much informed who we are today. I think we’re a different university than we were 50 years ago in a lot of ways. But I think there’s a certain degree of energy about the university — a willingness to do things differently, a bit of an adventurous spirit, a sense that people should speak out on controversial ideas. [. . .] The university, even in the early days, was a place of [fomentation] and controversy.

I guess I sometimes say we’ve gone from being a radical campus to an engaged university, which hopefully suggests that a lot of that energy informs who we are today, but also recognizes that we are today, of course, a much larger university, but also a university that I think has a much larger mission and relationship to the community than would have been the case 50 years ago.

P: You mentioned engagement, I think everyone’s become quite familiar with the term. What was the driving force behind that thought?

Petter: It came to me through a process of consultation that we engaged in. [laughs]

P: What are some of the most significant things to happen for SFU during its 50 years?

Petter: For an instant university that was created, really, of a piece, over a very short period of time, I guess the greatest highlight is just how far we’ve come in a 50 year period, to a three campus university with 35,000 students and rated the leading comprehensive university [by Maclean’s]. Our research performance has gone up astronomically. [. . .] That development of the university into something that I think we can all be really proud of has made a huge difference.

P: Do you have any particular goals for SFU in the long term?

Petter: Yeah, well, the vision sort of informs those goals. I think as much as I believe we already are extraordinary in terms of the engagement that we practice in our educational research [. . .] I think there’s much more we can do in that dimension.

For example, we will soon be announcing an innovation strategy, and that innovation strategy not only connects a lot of the work we’re already doing, including student innovation in social innovation at the RADIUS incubator and venture lab which was just started a few years ago [. . .] Surrey Innovation Boulevard, Venture Connection, the student incubator, but I can see that becoming a much extended presence in the university and also linking internationally.

It’s no secret that the buildings, some of which are 50 years old and some less so, [are] showing signs of wear and tear and we’ve had to devote internal resources to deal with those. But I’m very hopeful we will have more government support in the years ahead to really bring this campus up to the kind of condition that I think everyone would like to see it in and do justice to [architect] Arthur Erickson and to the students who are here now.

P: Are there any challenges you foresee that SFU will face in the future?

Petter: Well, finances are always a major challenge. We’ve had to endure some funding cuts in operating grants the last three years. And that’s very, very difficult because, like it or not, without funds we can’t do a lot of the things we want to do. We can’t address our desire to improve the quality of the student experience, which is a real priority throughout the university and particularly on this campus. So, I would say the financial challenges are probably first and foremost in my mind.

But are there other challenges? Sure. There’s always challenges. The technology for example is both a challenge and an opportunity for us. [. . .] Not only do we have to change our computers over every few years but there’s always a new software program, there’s always a new need to upgrade. So, technology is both a blessing and a challenge.

I do think this. We have to never allow education to be in service of technology. Technology has to be in service of education. Education is a human experience and if we allow tech to displace the human dimensions of education, we will be denying our students what is truly valuable about education community [and an] educational institution.

P: What has been the most defining moment of your term up till now?

Petter: It’s a little hokey, but I’ll say it, because the most defining moment for me is every year at convocation when you see the students cross the stage. You see that look in their eyes, you see the look in their parent’s eyes, a combination of pride, 90 per cent, relief 10 per cent. That sort of brings it all together and I think reminds us of what we dare not forget, and that is that it is about building human potential.

And it’s when I see those students cross the stage that is, I think, defining. It was particularly so this past convocation when we had a significant cohort of Aboriginal students cross the stage including students in the program we created, the Executive MBA. But all students crossing the stage. . . It’s moving and it’s defining.

P: Do you have a favourite SFU historical figure?

Petter: There are some people [who are] regularly and constantly referenced — and appropriately so — people like Gordon Shrum who made the decision to put it on top of a mountain or W.A.C Bennett who decided to create a couple new universities. . . Arthur Erickson. But you know the one I think doesn’t get the credit, perhaps, he should, and who I have a great story about because I met him recently, is the guy this building is named after, Ken Strand.

Ken Strand came here as an economist, a very young economist. And he kind of got thrown into the presidency. [. . .] And he, I think, really helped at a time when this instant university and a lot of the raucous qualities of SFU were being expressed. [. . .] He helped the university to really start to develop a trajectory and move forward and not to be undermined by, or distracted maybe, is the better word, by some of the controversies and things but to really get the university moving forward. And it’s appropriate that this administration building is named after him, but his name doesn’t come to people’s mind as quickly or as often as it should.

And he told me a great story [. . .] he told me a story that shortly after he became president, he got a call to come over and meet the premier. And this was during the time of all the protests and people with megaphones and decrying the government, decrying the university, and he got called over to meet the premier and he wasn’t quite sure why. He of course went over and he sat in the premier’s office [. . .] and the premier said, “I have a question for you, President Strand. Do you think it’s appropriate for universities to get involved in provincial politics?” Ken said that he thought about it, and took a minute, and he said “You know premier, I don’t think it’s appropriate for universities to get involved in provincial politics no more than I think it’s appropriate for provincial politicians to get involved in universities.” And apparently the premier thought about that and said, “Thank you President Strand, that will be all.” [laughs heartily] Isn’t that a great story? I hope that I’ve done justice to it.

But I think it shows that he’s a guy who really understood the mission of universities and their relationship to society and to government and their importance in their autonomy and the legacy he left us in terms of the academic. [. . .] I think he’s someone we should all be very thankful for particularly on the 50th anniversary.

P: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to add?

One of the things that I really value about this university is the commitment we do have to free speech and to diversity. I’ll tell you another favourite quote I have that actually comes from W.A.C. Bennet, who was the person who decided to create SFU and put the funds there to create it. [. . .] But one of his favourite sayings which I endorse is, “When everyone thinks alike, no one thinks much at all.” And I think that characterizes this university. We don’t believe everyone should think alike and we think we’re better off when people don’t think alike, provided their dialogue, debates, and disputes are respectfully carried out, we’ll be the stronger for it. And so I think it behooves us to remember that and to listen, to learn from each other in a respectful way, and not to become worried when we have disagreements, but not to become complacent either.
And it’s one of the things I really value about this university. Like it or not, that people are not afraid to speak their minds vigorously and challenge each other and challenge the administration and, while I don’t encourage that gratuitously, I celebrate the fact we have a university that supports that and sees it at as a core part of its commitment.