A look back at Joy Johnson’s first term

Many of SFU’s steps forward have been spearheaded by students

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Illustration of Joy Johnson, maybe sitting in her office sipping coffee or something
ILLUSTRATION: Alysa Umbal / The Peak

By: Karissa Ketter, Peak Associate

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article notes, “On May 19, the SFSS passed a motion in solidarity with Palestinian students, calling to join Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaigns.” It came to our attention that this happened in 2021, and we switched this sentence with a more recent SFSS motion, the Palestinian Liberation referendum, which passed on February 26 of this year.

We all know Joy Johnson: the 10th president and vice-chancellor of SFU whose first term has been filled with challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic, the TSSU strike, and the shutdown of the SFU football team.. There’s room for improvement in how she’s handled some of SFU’s more prominent issues. However, she’s also seen us through some exciting advancements: planning for SFU’s medical school, TransLink’s Burnaby Mountain gondola, the First Peoples’ Gathering House, and Burnaby Mountain’s permanent firehall. These were all significant to student life and the university, and if Johnson is here to stay for another five years — there are things we can learn from her first term. 

Back in her first month as president, The Peak asked Johnson what her goals as SFU’s president were. She noted students as her first goal and SFU’s equity, diversity, and inclusion as her second. Admittedly, there have been important concrete steps made in these directions, though, at times, these have been led or brought upon only after years of student outcries and activism. This includes the Scarborough Charter on anti-Black racism in universities and the First Peoples’ Gathering House

During Johnson’s term, she oversaw the creation of the new vice-president of people, equity, and inclusion. This new office has been an important space on campus for connecting with students. This happened after SFU signed onto the Scarborough Charter during Johnson’s term. SFU also approved hiring 15 Black faculty members. The move to hire more Black faculty was worked on by key student activists: Osob Mohamed, Gabe Liosis, Balqees Jama, Marie Haddad, and Giovanni HoSang. 

When the motion passed, Jama noted this was “historic.” At the time she added, “This achievement is a direct result of Black students organizing and allies supporting. We made sure SFU is aware that we are watching and holding them accountable. We hope the university centres Black academics throughout this process to ensure this is implemented in an effective and safe way, and works closely with the SFU Black Caucus.” Johnson also thanked the students for bringing this motion forward.

The First Peoples’ Gathering House was announced in 2020. While Raven King Stierle, from the SFU First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Student Association (FNMISA), told The Peak the Gathering House was a step towards reconciliation, many students expressed concerns about the lack of adequate consultation. At one meeting for the Aboriginal Steering Committee, “students were blocked from entering” the virtual meeting room, to discuss the Gathering House. This incident occurred a month after FNMISA’s statement for SFU recommending increased student involvement to ensure Indigenous students’ voices are heard along with ongoing communication with Host Nations. At the time, Johnson apologized, and noted in a statement to The Peak, “SFU must acknowledge our role in the harm that has been done to Indigenous peoples through education and research. I am committed to reconciliation as one of my three priorities during my presidency.”

In these cases, the university has attempted to show its commitment to creating space for equity, student inclusion, and social justice. Yet, the road to each of these accomplishments was always at the hands of student activism, with little credit given to them. Students from SFU’s Students of Caribbean and African Ancestry, SFU350, FNMISA, and more, have put in countless hours of labour to make these ideas come to life. 

SFU has even actively suppressed student activists. SFU’s Board of Governors declared a climate emergency on January 28, 2022 only after years of SFU350 lobbying the university. In August 2021, SFU350 released an open letter to urge SFU to take action. Then, in September of the same year, the group painted the Climate Justice Mural in Convocation Hall to “raise awareness of their ongoing campaign agains SFU’s fossil fuel investments.” Shortly after, SFU contacted SFU350 announcing the removal of the mural and some of the involved students were threatened with “corrective and/or disciplinary action.” After student outcry, SFU eventually said “student misconduct will not be pursued.” The SFU declaration included commitments to decarbonize university facilities, divest their funds from carbon-intensive investments, and increase student education — all of which had been proposed and detailed in SFU350’s open letter

Time and time again, the university implements its campaigns without due recognition of the time and effort students have invested in engaging SFU to change its policies or stance on specific areas. In Johnson’s next term, she should be more committed to listening to student voices, without so much labour necessary from students to implement these changes. Listening is only one aspect of equity work — Johnson should also be actively working towards social justice initiatives concerning student groups, rather than acting in response to them.  

More recently, students and faculty have organized interventions and demands related to the ongoing genocide in Palestine. On February 26, the SFSS passed the Palestinian Liberation referendum, giving Council-level support for the cause. Similarly, the group Faculty for Palestine has joined the call for SFU to academically boycott Israel and divest from corporations that provide weapons and services that have “facilitated the killing, maiming, or displacement of millions of individuals.” SFU Students for Justice in Palestine have also echoed the sentiment, joining the call for divestment and supporting student-led interventions, like taking over SFU Vancouver’s library to protest SFU’s Board of Governors meeting. As of the day of writing this article, SFU is yet to release an official statement on both the genocide in Palestine and student and faculty-led interventions and demands.

SFU has long held a reputation of being a radical campus: we have multiple student groups constantly battling for their voices to be heard. There continues to be ongoing campaigns for mobilizing social justice. 

Beyond students, community members also have had their fair share of advocacy work. A collection of students, staff, and faculty members called on the university to hire their food and service workers in-house, as opposed to being hired by a third party company. Hiring workers through a third party means these workers are not guaranteed university benefits, extended health benefits, or a living wage. UBC and UVic have both made the switch to hiring their workers in-house. Faculty members have frequently highlighted the importance of hiring workers directly, as many of them are already marginalized folks, such as women and people of colour. Hiring them through a third party exacerbates their vulnerabilities, leaving them at risk of layoffs, as has already happened, and doesn’t grant them the same level of benefits as university-hired workers. 

Further, amidst rising financial hardships, the Graduate Student Society and TSSU joined together to protest the funding crisis for graduate students in Canada. Most graduate students rely on income from teaching assistant positions or departmental scholarships. This kind of precarious labour increases challenges for many graduate students. However, rather than creating tangible support systems for the increasing financial burden of education, SFU has continued to raise the cost of tuition. If Johnson is truly concerned with equity, it should be a major priority to finally hire food and service workers in-house and provide a living wage for TAs rather than hiring surveillance companies to spy on them. 

None of us want another four years of protests, vague announcements, and student confusion. The university has made some great leaps in the last four years. Yet, it is clear these decisions come from the amazing community of students and faculty, not the administration. Johnson should be prioritizing staff, faculty, and student needs — if that’s what she claims she is truly concerned with. Otherwise, it will be another four years of SFU profiting off students, shielding themselves from criticism, and maintaining SFU’s image. That’s not what we want. 

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