Andrew Petter’s shame to fame

Petter is simply not the right choice for SFU.

Convocation is supposed to be about education. It’s supposed to celebrate hard work and vision, to reflect on themes of transition, opportunity, and loss. It’s about the process of not only finishing university, but leaving it behind.

When I walked across the Convo Mall stage over three years ago, none of these ideas were on display. The ceremony itself amounted to an excruciatingly long and undeserved self back-pat about the wonderful path the university was treading — little more than a commercial for one man’s vision of tomorrow’s engaged SFU.

The ceremony was irrelevant to the audience members, the vast majority of whom would never return to the school, narcissistically assuming they would care about the establishment’s goals and its progress toward them. The President’s main address said virtually nothing about learning, employment, success, or the value of an education. Having put in (far) more than four years schooling in a Canadian university, this whimper of an ending felt very inappropriate.

Andrew Petter took over as SFU’s President only shortly before I left the school, but even by then the impact of his style of governance was apparent. His predecessor, Michael Stevenson, had been a University Bureaucrat in the classical sense, doubling down on research and graduate studies and arguably downplaying the importance of undergraduate education in the overall university culture. Stevenson had been an academic for basically his entire life, and he had very particular ideas about the way a campus ought to be run.

My convocation was little more than a commercial for one man’s vision of tomorrow’s engaged SFU.

He also ruled mostly during a province-wide post-secondary tuition freeze, so undergrads couldn’t be farmed for dollars quite as easily as they are today.

At this time, though, Stevenson’s resistance to youth culture combined with a student population of disaffected commuters not only gave SFU a reputation as a decent place to take tests, but a terrible place to wrap up your adolescence. Draconian rules about things like alcohol and fraternities, and a Facilities Management team that almost explicitly hated the idea of events on the hill, meant that many talented students were choosing UBC or even more distant schools over languishing in Burnaby’s mountain-top prison of learning.

This lack of emphasis on undergraduate culture also meant that SFU was less able than most universities to culturally mask its swelling population of socially disconnected international students, whose numbers (and exorbitant tuition levels) were a source of growing controversy.

Then the university administration chose to move forward from Stevenson by hiring politician Andrew Petter. They needed someone who could handle the public as Stevenson never could, someone with an ability to change people’s perceptions and humanize otherwise opaque institutions. They didn’t need a ‘crack’ administrator, nor someone with a powerful vision for education — what they needed was to rebrand.

In my time, this mentality culminated in a PR campaign called Envision SFU, which featured major initiatives like buying ads on the side of city buses. Visibly striving for the ‘engaged’ university became an end unto itself — not an attribute of a good school or an emergent property of wise governance, but a means of attacking the public perception of the name Simon Fraser.

In Petter’s view, the real problem didn’t seem to be the lack of culture but the perception of that lack. Change the perception and, as far as they’re concerned, the problem is fixed.

This is what happens when a university staffs itself with an increasingly greater proportion of politicians and marketing types. It’s worth noting that Petter’s vapid, self-aggrandizing convocation speech was delivered without a hint of self-awareness; it’s not that he had so little respect for students that he didn’t care that he was making their convocation into an ad for his favorite committee-born action item, it’s that he and those like him are so addled by the administrative culture that they genuinely seemed to have no idea what was happening.

Say what you want about Michael Stevenson’s vision of the university’s relationship to education — at least he seemed to have one.

When it only affects a convocation ceremony, these are fairly minor points. But the mentality that was so aggressively on display that day lays behind the university’s thinking on much more important issues. Much as it has at most other universities, the change in thinking has bubbled up through labyrinthine boards and committees to affect everything from tutorial frequency, to faculty make-up, to bargaining goals with the ever-embattled TSSU.

It all leads almost unavoidably to a culture that puts a greater emphasis on aesthetics than substance — which can even be quantified by the several hundred million dollars in deferred maintenance of SFU’s decaying infrastructure.

In Petter’s view, the real problem didn’t seem to be the lack of culture but the perception of that lack.

The university is now so obsessed with hiring people well-positioned to liaise with public and private funding sources that administrators are molded by the priorities of other groups and institutions, more than by the needs of the university itself. A modern SFU President must be as concerned with the perceptions of wealthy real-estate developers and Chinese parents as with overall student satisfaction. This leads to more and more positions requiring skillsets less and less relevant to education or research.

The staff who just-so-happen to have such ‘interpersonal’ skillsets are the very same people who have ruined (or perhaps been ruined by) the corporate and political worlds. When a corporation loses institutional focus and begins frittering away resources on things indirectly related to its ‘goals,’ it’s the consumers and shareholders who lose out.

Most alarmingly, this has culminated in a salary crisis that now reaches beyond just TAs to affect a huge proportion of the university’s teaching corps. If you aren’t old enough to have coexisted with tenure and you want to teach rather than research, this and virtually all other university administration views you as a cheap and expendable resource.

You are not an extension of its reason for existing, not an opportunity to spend on the university’s core goals, but a line item to be minimized like all others. There is a dishonest implication that savings put toward non-education-relevant initiatives will eventually create an overall university prosperity that will eventually re-strengthen education once again — but that second part somehow never seems to materialize.

This is not what is supposed to happen when SFU’s current President emphasizes community engagement. Engagement is supposed to be in pursuit of something.

Andrew Petter certainly didn’t create any of the issues I’m talking about, but for his role in allowing them to utterly ruin that moment of convocation for so many people, he’ll be associated with them in my mind for the rest of my life.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Well the guy that SFU just gave an honourary degree to seems to agree with the general thrust of this article – I just saw the video of his call out for the TSSU and against SFU treating teachers as cheap and expendable resource.