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February 19, 2004

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President Stevenson confident of way forward

Public funding is becoming increasingly targeted with the consequence that autonomy is being eroded.

by Michael Stevenson
As the mid-point in my term as president approaches, it seems appropriate to reflect on the agenda which I set on my arrival. At the time, I was very conscious of my responsibility to sustain, deepen and improve upon the extraordinary legacy that Simon Fraser University has established since its inception in 1965.

There have been many remarkable achievements: superior teaching and research programs have been developed in the liberal arts and sciences; innovative interdisciplinary and professional programs have been created; and strong partnerships have been built through outreach to the community. All universities claim excellence in these areas, but I believe SFU's record is truly distinguished, and I am committed to expand on our past success - regardless of the challenges which lie ahead.

We are entering a period when there will be massive changes in the faculty and staff complements. Over the decade ending in 2010, half of the current faculty will have left the university through retirement or the pursuit of other interests. As a result of this demographic shift, we must virtually recreate the university by recruiting a new generation that will maintain the SFU legacy.

We face another challenge from the surging demand for student access. SFU is particularly affected based on its location in a region of rapid growth and on the fact that we reside in a province which provides fewer post-secondary spaces per capita than elsewhere in the country.

A third challenge arises from the increasing differentiation and competition among universities that is being driven by fundamental changes in the way public higher education is funded. Despite growing government encouragement to private institutions, university funding remains predominantly public, albeit at a less generous level than has been the case historically.

But public funding is becoming increasingly targeted with the consequence that autonomy is being eroded. At the federal level, new research funding initiatives have their bias, different institutions can find themselves either advantaged or disadvantaged depending on their mix of capital-intensive research in medical or engineering science programs. It follows that SFU must fashion a response that brings benefit to the university while respecting those characteristics which make us distinctive.

Recognizing these three significant challenges, I established strategic priorities within my agenda. Principal among them, we must create new programs that answer to growth and change. We must move decisively to make operational the broad directives senate has given as an outcome of the curriculum review. By such action, I believe we can revitalize the core content and meaning of a liberal arts and science education at SFU. Once implemented, SFU programs will be identified by their coherent and self-conscious attention to the mix of written communication skills, quantitative skills and breadth.

Internationalization also features as a priority. We are making good progress in establishing strategic partnerships with key institutions in countries where formerly we had limited institutional involvement including China, India and Europe. It is my hope that our researchers will derive particular benefit from these relationships. New opportunities also are available to students through the expansion of our field school programs, through a more diverse selection of student exchanges, and through the active recruitment of foreign undergraduate and graduate students.

I see advances in research coordination, especially in positioning the university for success in emerging programs that put a premium on large scale projects with interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary content. Progress is being made to secure a competitive share of federal Canada Foundation for Innovation and Canada Research Chair funding. The same is true with provincial counterpart programs such as the B. C. Knowledge Development Fund and Leadership Chairs. Also important, we continue to do extremely well in the targeted programs recently launched by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, winning a very high percentage of the money awarded in the program's first year.

Regarding interdisciplinary programs, academic planning for the Surrey campus has produced interactive arts and technology programs that provide a very attractive expansion of our interests in applied sciences. New activities under development for SFU Surrey include an undergraduate business program in the management of technology as well as innovative arts and science programs that will be a departure from existing offerings.

At the graduate level, we continue to innovate in response to change and demand. The faculty of business administration has been a leader with the introduction of MBA programs in the management of technology and in global asset and wealth management. Business also is developing a new research focus in areas such as governance, risk management and sustainable enterprise. Last year, senate approved new graduate programs in public policy and urban studies led by the faculty of arts. Expansion in cognitive science and forensic science also is under way.

Most important, a landmark decision was taken by senate to establish a faculty of health sciences. It creates a platform for innovation which I believe will rival the opportunity seized by SFU when the faculty of applied sciences was created. The new faculty reflects all that is best about SFU's capacity for innovation and interdisciplinary studies while addressing an important area of educational demand - and not coincidentally, a very important area of research and educational funding.

New programming aside, an equally important priority has been the recruitment and retention of high calibre faculty, staff and students. We have been succeeding on all three fronts. We are replenishing the faculty complement with approximately 60 appointments of superb quality each year. Student applications to SFU continue to grow, the student retention rate has improved, and we have doubled the number of new students with average entering grades of 90 per cent or better. However, high entrance grade point averages are a two-edged sword: they reflect well on our academic profile, but their use to control enrolments also demonstrates how access demand exceeds our capacity. On this issue, I shall continue to lobby for improved access. Similarly, I am intent on finding ways to ensure that no academically qualified students will be denied access on the basis of financial need alone.

As the column space for this brief account runs out, I cannot conclude without a comment on space itself. After many years of a construction moratorium, and with assistance from government and from the $100 million bond issue which we secured last year, SFU is undergoing an expansion in physical plant unparalleled since the 1960s.

Among the many projects under way or in the final planning stages, we are adding 850 new student residence beds; building a gymnasium addition; renovating a temple bank building in Vancouver given to us by chancellor emeritus, Joe Segal; proceeding with the Olympic oval; working to acquire splendid new facilities to house SFU Surrey; planning new complexes for science and for arts; adding to the applied sciences building; and moving forward with the UniverCity project.

In review, I believe we are proceeding from strength to strength. Certainly there are challenges to face and to overcome. Not least among them is our financial situation, but even in these difficult times, I feel confident that we will find a way forward that protects our people, our programs and our legacy.



This article is an excerpt of President Stevenson's remarks to the Open Forum on Jan. 29.















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