So SFU has a new president — what’s the big deal?

The appointment of a new administrator is unlikely to address the concerns of the average student

joy johnson shot for royal society

By: Jessica Garcia, SFU Student

It’s no big secret that I’m something of a pessimist. Give me a sunny day, and I’ll point out the clouds in the distance. Introduce me to a stunning new fantasy series, and I’ll give you my five-point thesis on how the author is probably a mess. The world is full of open sewers waiting to plunge the overly-optimistic waist-deep into cesspools of disappointment. But you can’t watch your hopes and expectations plummet below the ground if you never held them that high to begin with, right?

I look at the appointment of a new president at SFU in a similar light. In the midst of the fanfare, the exposés, and the proverbial confetti and doves that greet Dr. Joy Johnson as she ascends to the mighty throne at the top of the mountain, I have to ask myself: why? Why is the appointment of a new president such a big deal? 

It’s not as though Petter is leaving in disgrace, or that Dr. Johnson dueled him to the death for his position in a long succession of ruthless blood contests. I have to believe, as my pessimism demands, that nothing fundamental will change at all for us peasants tending our fields of term papers with this shift in administration. 

It’s not that I believe that either Andrew Petter or Joy Johnson are bad people or bad administrators. Far from it. I have no doubt that Dr. Johnson will do her duty to the university admirably — which will likely mean that tuition will continue to rise, construction will stretch out in perpetuity, and the President’s Honour Roll reception will still consist of mediocre food, a pat on the back, and an ask that students pay for even more bloated university experiences. 

It’s simply how the university as an institution is currently built to function — namely as a business, with all its analogous clients and shareholders. And as part of the day-to-day bureaucratic functioning of the institution, it doesn’t really matter who is at the head, so long as all the bureaucrats down the line remain and continue to do their jobs. 

From reading Dr. Johnson’s introduction and listening to her priorities, nothing sticks out as alarming, but neither does anything stick out as ground-breaking either. I am as puzzled about what SFU’s commitment to “engagement” actually means when Dr. Johnson reaffirms it — as when Petter did. What does “enhanced learning environments” entail when, for the third year in a row, I’m taking classes amidst a cacophony of construction noises and chemical smells leaking from sites? Does a commitment to “equity, diversity, and inclusion” mean that the year-long debacle over finding the Rotunda groups permanent spaces is finally going to be resolved? Does Indigenization mean more Indigenous content in class syllabi that feels rushed and trite rather than actually meaningfully integrated? Will Dr. Johnson’s past success increasing research income for the institution mean financial relief for the international students who were hit with a 20% increase in tuition?

In the end, I don’t see how this change is that big of a deal. I can’t read the future, so I don’t know how Dr. Johnson’s tenure as SFU’s tenth president will play out. My gut says that any real change that comes out of this will be modest, and isn’t likely to impact the majority of students significantly, if at all. But I’m a pessimist. I can’t be disappointed if I don’t hold my expectations too high.

But I can also be pleasantly surprised if my low expectations are exceeded.