Joy Johnson can’t save us

Her positionality and actions mean that we shouldn’t hail her as our leader for change at SFU

Johnson isn’t a total joy to the world when she promotes faulty health resources. Photo courtesy of Simon Fraser University via Facebook

by Madeleine Chan, Opinions Editor

Last year when Joy Johnson was announced as SFU’s new president, leaving Andrew Petter to the dust, it seemed like a win. Petter, who preached self-important politics, had relative inaction on social and student issues, and staunch bureaucracy, was leaving, we were getting someone who said their first priority was students, and she’s a woman! Surely that girlboss power would deter at least some of the sexismrelated and otherwise prejudiced problems that SFU has hosted over the past decade. 

At the time, anything seemed better than Petter. But over a year after she was announced as his successor, I’ve come to realize that she isn’t all that great. In fact, any new president SFU receives from now on won’t be so revolutionary either.

I want to be crystal clear that I don’t hate Johnson. She seems like a perfectly nice, well-intentioned person and I don’t think she, personally, has deserved any dislike. But her actions so far and position as president do raise some concerns. 

Johnson started her tenure last fall, hot off the heels of Petter’s commitment to SFU Athletics’ name change, and smack in the middle of the pandemic. Her long-preached commitments to equity, diversity, and inclusion were at the forefront of her introduction, and seemed to be an apt amplification of Petter’s final actions. Since then she’s doubled down on her words, making four commitments to act on this sentiment, including creating a vice-president people, inclusion, and diversity position. 

It really seems like Johnson has the best intentions with spearheading the formation of this new role, but it so easily seems like it’ll lead to another administrative figurehead whose job is to only exude SFU’s good graces. It’s the same with her writing a Burnaby Now article on why we need a gondola. Why choose to write on that when Trans Mountain is preparing to drill a reconciliation-shattering pipeline expansion through Burnaby mountain right now? Especially when reconciliation is one of her top three priorities entering the role. She also seems sincere in her words to act on the suggestions in the final report on the December 11 arrest, but I can’t believe her. 

She does all of these things that sound great, but can easily be written off as performative despite any legitimate good intention — and there lies the problem. Her hierarchical role as someone bureaucratically restrained to expressing her thoughts with polished statements and vague sentiments does not, and cannot, make her intentions true. After all, what is a university’s president if not someone whose job is to make the school look good?

These past two semesters she really has tried to prove herself to students. But promoting resources like MySSP and SFU’s Health and Counselling that students have expressed don’t work shows the disconnect she has with students. It’s obvious she means well in sharing “inspiring” social media messages and nice photos of the campus at springtime, but it just feels so oblivious to the fact that students are suffering — from the lack of true action she has taken thus far to support them, no less. 

This distanced thinking comes from the fact that she’s in a position of extreme power and affluence — something that students can only dare to experience in movies and magazines. How can someone who makes an assumed $443,850 a year truly relate to the people she is supposed to serve — who are barely keeping up with tuition increases and surviving on limited income as it is?

Just her position as someone so much higher on the social chain, she’s hierarchically removed from students. She literally lives atop Burnaby mountain in a penthouse suite, one which the school fervently fought to have air conditioning for, despite it violating the strata’s bylaws. They even seemed reluctant to pay a couple hundred dollars in fines for something they brought upon themselves. Living in the lap of luxury and having this much influential support means she can’t truly relate to and serve students, no matter how hard she tries. 

Considering these circumstances of presidency, if I, for example, were to somehow become SFU’s president, would I be able to make the comprehensive changes to our education system, faculty, and overall institution that I would want? I don’t think so. Unless the conditions around how the institution’s president is supposed to act, express opinions, and how they are positioned in power is changed, no future president will actually be able to fully enact the changes their words seek, or will be able to be the change that students want to see. 

I want to be proven wrong about SFU’s president. I want to be shown that she’s going to be the drastic change that the school desperately needs, that someone in her position can actually prioritize students, and that all of her successors would continue that trajectory. But considering how the position works and what she’s done so far, I highly doubt that’s going to happen. For now, we’ll have to wait to see over these five years what her girlboss cred can accomplish.