Ron Baker

Fifty years ago this spring Ron Baker and SFU were big news. The “instant university” needed to be up and running in a very short time and Baker was in the thick of things. He was director of academic planning, the first faculty member hired, and he served as the first head of the Department of English. Later he became the first president of University of Prince Edward Island. He retired in 1991. He has honorary degrees from University of New Brunswick (1970), Mount Allison University (1977), University of Prince Edward Island (1989), and Simon Fraser University (1990).

You were responsible for many innovations that made SFU unique. What were some of them?

(1) The early adoption of the trimester system. (2) No compulsory English, maths, second language, or science. (3) A combination of large lectures and tutorials for all students and all years. (4) The internship and associate system in teacher training. Many people thought we did away with the compulsory subjects because we wanted to attract students. That isn’t so. I wanted to do away with them because schools had changed, they didn’t work, and they posed huge burdens on departments.

When I was a freshman at UBC in 1947, calculus didn’t start until second year, even for science and engineering students. By 1965, some students started calculus in high school. The English and language requirement, as taught, didn’t work well either. And the first heads of science didn’t want a compulsory science.

What were your biggest challenges?

The most time-consuming challenge was persuading [Chancellor Gordon] Shrum to support my proposals. He was all-powerful in the beginning. With some minor modifications, I eventually persuaded him to agree with what I wanted. But the biggest challenge was recruiting, especially the first heads. Canada wasn’t producing nearly enough faculty, especially with PhDs, and both the older universities and the new ones were expanding. Around 1964, Canada produced only five PhDs in maths. B.C. alone wanted over 30, so the competition was intense.

What are you proudest of at SFU?

Above all, of the quality of the first heads and faculty. Rudy Haering (Department of Physics), Don Nelson (Department of Biological Sciences) and Tom Bottomore (Department of Political Science, Sociology, and Anthropology) were outstanding by any measure. I was also very proud of the fact that we planned, built, staffed, and opened with over 2,000 students just 21 months after I opened the first office on January 2, 1964.

Is there anything you would have done differently?

I would insist on better senior administrative staff. Shrum wouldn’t pay for more experienced admin people, and I didn’t know any better. I also wouldn’t have an all-year operation. Shrum was committed to it, and I thought the trimester system the best possibility. It was very helpful recruiting, but it was expensive and an administrative nightmare. I would pay very much more attention to explaining what we wanted to do and implementing it with new staff. We left that to the heads, and they had other problems to deal with.

What is your best memory of those early years?

In some ways, I suppose the opening ceremony with Lord Lovat on a beautiful day. It was a symbolic recognition that we had done what many people doubted we could do.

SFU, the “instant university,” is nothing but a barren mountaintop in the spring of 1964. Ron Baker, with his daughter Sarah, stands at the site and looks at the plans.

What individuals stand out?

Shrum beyond question. I doubt that anyone else could have got Simon Fraser going in such a short time. Also the president, Patrick McTaggart-Cowan. After them, there are more faculty than I can list, but Nelson and Haering (as mentioned above), John Ellis (education), Don Baird (librarian), Alan Cunningham (history), and Lorne Davies (athletic director) were all outstanding. And of course, I thought that many of my own English department were outstanding as well, but it’s hardly fair to list them and not list those I didn’t know in all the other departments.

Looking back over 50 years, how would you assess the university and its achievements?

I’ve been away since 1969, but outside assessments are very good. The Times annual survey in 2013 rated SFU as 26th of the 100 best universities in the world under 50 years old, and Canadian assessments rate it among the best in its group. Students I meet and my grandchildren are favourable toward it. Students from the early days write to me about how great it was. Some friends from the beginning complain to me that it has become “just like the others,” but that doesn’t surprise me. New universities are a hobby of mine, and I’ve visited many. Very few keep their original plans and fewer still escape becoming like the others. It’s inevitable.

Top Photo: Ron Long,  1964 photo: Courtesy Ron Baker