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Behind the Scenes with Andrew Petter

January 28, 2010

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Three mornings a week, Andrew Petter steps onto the Lochside Trail near his home in Victoria to begin a 10km run through gently rolling farm fields.

It’s a time for the University of Victoria law professor to reflect on problems, mentally prep for the day’s lectures or listen to podcasts about international current events.

But when Petter assumes the SFU presidency Sept. 1, and the accompanying presidential penthouse suite in UniverCity, he’ll have a great deal of steep new terrain to explore, both literally and figuratively.

It’s an exploration Petter looks forward to, although he says wryly, "I hope the main ups and downs of my presidency will be about getting up and down the mountain whether by foot, bicycle or other means."

Petter brings a unique combination of expertise, interests and passion to SFU that seem ideally suited to the university’s current focus on the undergraduate experience, internationalization, First Nations programming and the environment.

"I wasn’t looking to become a university president," he says, "but when the opportunity came along and I considered SFU’s values in light of my own, I felt I had something to offer."

As a former dean of UVic’s law school, he brings not only seven years of senior university administrative experience to the presidential office, but a long history as a professor of constitutional law and a deep background in provincial politics.

A self-described "people person", Petter is known for his ability to build consensus among diverse groups. "He has a real talent for dealing with difficult people and situations," says Harry Arthurs, former president of Toronto’s York University and past dean of Osgoode Hall Law School where Petter accepted his first assistant professorship in 1984.

"He’s honest, straightforward and a genuine democrat. But he’s also an activist and a strategic thinker, capable of making tough decisions and following through with them."

Petter’s delight in people extends to embracing community and politics. His sense of civic duty led him to heed Mike Harcourt’s call to leave academia and run as an NDP candidate in Saanich South in the 1991 provincial election. He spent the next decade as an MLA, holding key cabinet posts in Aboriginal affairs, forestry, finance and advanced education. He served his final year as attorney general and minister responsible for human rights.

Petter says that decade of public service enhanced his understanding of community issues and bolstered his conviction that education is the key to building better communities.

He sees the role of university president as both helping those in the university community realize their professional and personal aspirations and representing the university’s values in the wider community.

Making a difference to community, he says, "is what makes me get up in the morning and feel good when I go to bed at night."

A commitment to the environment
SFU’s emphasis on environmental sustainability, both in its own facilities management and through the new Faculty of the Environment, aligns well with Petter’s own commitment to environmental issues.

During his term as forests minister he helped designate many new protected areas and instigated major changes in forest and land-use policy.

And as minister responsible for the Provincial Capital Commission he spearheaded development of the Galloping Goose and Lochside trail systems, a popular walking, running and cycling network stretching from Sooke to Victoria and Sidney on old railroad rights-of-way.

To this day he’s known affectionately in the area as "Minister of Bikes and Trails," and Province columnist Michael Smyth once referred to him as being "so green that every day they have to take him out and mow him."

A commitment to First Nations education
SFU’s strategic plan for First Nations education dovetails nicely with Petter’s interest in Aboriginal rights and education. As Aboriginal affairs minister, Petter played an instrumental role in the Nisga’a treaty negotiations and led the province’s efforts to work with First Nations and the federal government to create the B.C. Treaty Commission.

And as dean of UVic’s law school, he collaborated with northern partners in 2001 to establish the Akitsiraq Law School in Nunavut. He also founded two new Aboriginal research chairs and initiated a Law and Society graduate program that has attracted unprecedented Indigenous graduate student enrolment in the faculty.

First Nations education programming, says Petter, is one key to overcoming historic wrongs against First Nations peoples and helping them to address the social problems that continue to plague their communities.

The contact it provides others with First Nations students, faculty and culture also pays huge dividends. "It casts new light on their own social values and assumptions," he says, "and that’s what education should be all about."

Undergraduate education is important
Petter also feels strongly about the value of undergraduate education and applauds SFU’s emphasis in that area, while building its status as a research university. "Too many research universities view undergraduate education as a necessary evil," he says. "But undergraduate students bring so much energy and stimulation to the academic community."

A commitment to internationalization
Internationalization is another principle that he feels strongly about. "I place huge value on diversity," he says. "I think SFU’s international dimension, both in terms of attracting international students and enabling students to travel elsewhere, is hugely important."

Petter hopes his combination of academic experience and administrative skill, along with his inside knowledge of government will help SFU to continue forging new paths in community and academic leadership.

"I’m really looking forward to working with the university community to realize its dreams, and the dreams of the communities it serves."

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