January 22, 2004

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The sounds of silence about to change

The college aims to become a place where all disciplines come together for conversations on important issues and where the university can host important visitors.
By Bob Anderson, Paul Delany, Jon Driver, Kieran Egan, Alison Gill, Don Grayston and Lynne Quarmby

When people arrive to work and study at SFU they have become accustomed to the absence of community, to people leaving the hill, and to emptiness and silence after 5:30 pm. The longer you stay up here, the more you get used to this absence. In the end people seem unconscious of it. That is going to change with the new UniverCity community, enlarged dormitory capacity, and a new residential college with a working name of Burnaby Mountain College.

The college is a virtual one now, with a steering committee of Bob Anderson (communication) (pictured, left), Paul Delany (English) (right), Jon Driver (dean of graduate studies), Kieran Egan (education), Alison Gill (geography), Donald Grayston (humanities), and Lynn Quarmby (biosciences). The welcome support and leadership of the President and VP-academic have been instrumental in the planning of the college. The college aims to become a place where all disciplines come together for conversations on important issues, where special on-going research seminars can be sponsored and where the university can host important visitors. Though these aims will take time, we are pleased to have come this far in three years.

The goal is to accommodate about 100 residents - most of them graduate students (probably doctoral students at first) - as well as visiting fellows, newly arriving faculty, and post-doctoral fellows. Built close to the new village square that opens later this year, it will have a dining hall for residents and guests. We imagine the college as a gateway between the new community and the university, an intermediary place for combining new ideas and influences, and this is why we'd like to build it right on the border between the community and university.

Dining together is also an important part of the concept. The college will have a strong international flavour, with many people from out of town and other countries living there and dining together. The dining facilities will welcome guests along with residents.

In our view it is easy enough to put up structures, but we also need to pay attention to social infrastructure - that is, ways of supporting the intellectual exchange and growth that is the true heart of any good university. Since research is increasingly interdisciplinary, it is important for doctoral students - who represent the next generation of researchers - to establish social and intellectual contact with their peers in other disciplines.

We have 580 doctoral students at SFU. When they complete their research here they carry our SFU flag round the world, enlarging our university's reputation. Yet at the moment they lack a place to think and work together on issues of common significance, so neither they benefit nor SFU benefits from their presence as much as we all might. The college can help to change that, and their presence and interaction will add a vibrant maturity to the social life around the square.

All faculty have found that interesting new questions arise in the course of discussing our research with colleagues outside our discipline The darker corners of our minds are lit up by these discussions and we discover things we don't understand. The related benefit of this, i.e., learning first hand what is happening on the front lines of other fields, provides a valuable reality check for one's world view.

Whether we work in a lab, in the field or on the sea, or write books using documents in a solitary basement, this will bring us together. The college will not only provide a rich and exciting environment for new students and visiting fellows but equally important, it will enrich life for those of us already here.

We began this project by examining the benefits of similar colleges elsewhere. Green College has had a transforming effect at UBC and we realized that we could shape our college to have a similar impact on the intellectual life and scholarly interactions at SFU. Massey College at the University of Toronto is another possible model, and there may be others. We would like to hear about them from you.

Many people appear to have been thinking about the need for a Burnaby Mountain College, because when asked, people often said they thought something was missing but weren't quite sure what. Bob Anderson was a visiting fellow at a college at the University of Cambridge in 1997 and 1998 and on his return in early 1999 he began to think that the small intimate scale of that old college, founded in 1362, would be a very good thing on Burnaby Mountain. After all, shouldn't we be planning for the next hundred years, as Cambridge colleges did? Any innovation here could last more than 600 years too. As a member of the board of the Community Trust building the village, Bob became aware of the shift of the center of gravity of the university eastward, and the logic of locating the college there.

So conversations began in 1999 with Paul Delany in English and Kathy Mezei in humanities, both of whom had also been visiting fellows at the same college in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College. The master of Corpus Christi, physicist Haroon Ahmed, became an adviser to the SFU steering committee. We decided to involve those at SFU who had similar college experiences, and visited Green College at UBC to discuss the challenges of establishing and running a residential college. The former principal of Green College, Richard Ericson, has already given us valuable advice. The more people we talked to at SFU the more encouragement we received to proceed with the planning.

An intermediate step is planned while we await the commitment of major supporters and donors for the larger structure. In an upper floor of one of the buildings going up near the square, the college hopes first of all to create a residence hall housing about 40 people, dining facilities, and a seminar-conference room. This first intermediate step will help us learn to manage on a smaller scale the challenges of a much larger college, and it will create the coherence and energy necessary to build the big one. The college has begun to establish a list called Friends of the College, involving faculty, graduate students, and staff. We welcome enquiries and additions to the list. We are developing a business plan in order to see how the first intermediate step can be financed.

Burnaby Mountain College already co-sponsors lectures and seminars on the hill. If you want to know more about it, or attend forthcoming events, check out the events page on its new website, at The college will co-sponsor the President's lecture on Values and the Environment by Andrew Feenberg on Jan. 26 at 4:30 p.m. in the Halpern centre. We also co-sponsor seminars with the SFU members of the Royal Society, such as on Feb. 10 at 4:30 p.m. in the Halpern centre when Mary Lynn Stewart will speak about Fashioning Modern Women. With the institute for the humanities, we co-sponsor a series of talks, and CBC broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel's presence here in November was part of that joint initiative. We welcome your suggestions and cooperation, please just send a message to

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