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Andrew Petter
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Andrew Petter Q&A

January 28, 2010

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The international search for a new president began almost a year ago. An SFU search committee comprised of 16 individuals representing staff, faculty, students and the board of governors, was asked to find an innovative, visionary leader with consummate relationship skills, solid financial acumen and strong administrative experience. The search generated a number of exceptional national and international applicants but the search committee chose local candidate Andrew Petter.

SFU News sat down with Petter to find out more about his thoughts on academia, leadership and SFU.


SFU NEWS: What attracted you to SFU?

PETTER: The opportunity to be president of a university that has made such impressive commitments to research and scholarship, to undergraduate education, and to the communities it serves. What SFU is doing as a university is extraordinary and exemplary. I believe that British Columbia has the potential to become the "education" province, and I see SFU playing a significant role in realizing that goal. I find that exciting, and I feel incredibly privileged to have been given this opportunity.


SFU NEWS: What makes SFU so distinctive?

PETTER: SFU stands apart from most other universities of which I’m aware because of its combination of strengths. It has an outstanding record of research, scholarship and graduate programming, which has contributed to its ranking as Canada’s top comprehensive university. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that SFU has achieved this record without sacrificing its commitment to undergraduate students. Undergraduate programming is so important—undergraduate students, with their energy and ideas, can help invigorate a university and its faculty. And at the same time, SFU has developed strong and diverse community connections that are unparalleled in Canada.


SFU NEWS: How do you see the role of the university president?

PETTER: I see the role of a president supporting those in the university community to realize their hopes and dreams for themselves and for the institution and to draw out of the university the very best of what it can and wants to be.


SFU NEWS: What fuels your passion for education?

PETTER: Its transformative capacity. Education can enable individuals to realize their full potential and to maximize their contributions to society. Taken together, that potential and those contributions can reshape communities and transform countries. Through education, we have the capacity to build a society that is stronger, more sustainable and better equipped to meet the challenges of the future.


SFU NEWS: What are your immediate goals as president?

PETTER: My first goal will be to get to know the SFU community to meet with faculty, staff and students to hear both their concerns and their hopes for the future. I am not coming to SFU to impose an agenda on the university; rather, I am coming because I’m impressed by the university and what it has accomplished, and because I want to help it move forward to meet the aspirations of those who work and study here.

In addition, I want to get out and engage with the full spectrum of communities served by SFU—the business community and the arts community, for example, as well as multi-cultural communities. And obviously I want to meet as well with people in government both federally and provincially to talk about the university, to learn their perspective and frankly to promote SFU and the cause of post-secondary education generally.


SFU NEWS: What strengths do you bring to the role of president?

PETTER: I bring three obvious strengths. First, I’ve been an academic most of my professional life, so I understand the mission and operation of universities from the perspective of both faculty and students. Second, I’ve had experience as an academic administrator. Being dean of a law school requires one to undertake many of the same activities and responsibilities that are required of a university president. There are a lot of external activities—fundraising, alumni development, engagement with government and the business community, as well as participating in deans’ council and other university decision-making bodies. I also learned that the best way to lead in an academic setting is not through top-down decision-making—but rather through creative engagement and drawing out the best in people. Third, I’ve worked outside of universities. I was in government for 10 years, which has given me a better understanding of how governments function and how best to engage with communities.


SFU NEWS: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing SFU?

PETTER: Clearly SFU and other universities face serious fiscal challenges driven both by economic conditions and demographic circumstances. We are not, for example, going to see nearly as many high school students entering university as we have come to expect in recent years.

Having said this, I also see opportunities. The best way to foster sustainable economic growth is through investments in education. I am going to work in every way I know to persuade governments of that fact, and to ensure that governments that support education get the recognition they deserve.

I also see opportunities that are unique to SFU. The Surrey campus, for example, is situated in an area that will buck the province-wide trend and see significant student growth in the next decade. I understand that students from Surrey already represent the largest number of new students coming not only to the Surrey campus, but to all of SFU. The growing connection with downtown Vancouver also represents a strategic advantage for SFU. A recent newspaper editorial referred to SFU’s downtown campus "as the intellectual heart of Vancouver," and with the new School for Contemporary Arts opening soon, there are opportunities to build on this reputation. I see additional opportunities to attract more international students to SFU, and to build on the recently adopted First Nations Strategic Plan to attract more Aboriginal students and to forge important new relationships and research opportunities.


SFU NEWS: What are you most proud of in your career to date?

PETTER: I would say that it is my capacity to motivate people and to draw the best out of an institution. The results at UVic Law were the development of a Law and Society graduate program, innovative new Aboriginal initiatives (including a law school for Inuit students in the high Arctic), expanded clinical offerings, and facilities improvements including a major law library upgrade.

I’m very proud of my record of working with others in common cause and of what we have been able to accomplish together. I very much hope that my ability, enjoyment, and passion for this kind of work will serve me well in my new role at SFU.


SFU NEWS: You’re someone who has strong views. How do you see that working for you as university president?

PETTER: As strong as my views are, there are no views I hold stronger than my beliefs in the power of education and in the value of diversity. The strength an institution can derive from drawing upon diverse points of view is so much greater than it can gain from any one person’s opinions, including my own. And the great thing about education is that it is not an ideological issue—it draws support from all sides of the political spectrum. If we are going to work together to harness education’s full potential, the question is not whether we move left or right, but whether we move forward.


SFU NEWS: You’ve had experience in politics. How do you see that influencing your role as president?

PETTER: I think it will be an asset. As someone who understands universities, but who also knows the challenges facing governments and the difficulties associated with public policy processes, I believe that I can play a useful role in facilitating better communication and fostering greater understanding between governments and universities to the benefit of both.


SFU NEWS: You’ve talked about SFU’s connection with community. Can you talk about why that’s so important to you?

PETTER: For me, the value of a university is measured by what it contributes to the communities it serves—be they local, provincial, national or international. If I didn’t believe that my work as an educator, as a dean, and soon as a president contributed to community betterment, I wouldn’t feel the same sense of joy, gratification and excitement about what I do. It’s this belief that gets me up in the morning and enables me to sleep peacefully at night.

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