June 23, 2005

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The case for autonomous universities

Pat Hibbitts, SFU VP-finance and administration, was recently honoured with a YWCA Woman of Distinction award. This is her acceptance speech.

By Pat Hibbitts
I want to thank the YWCA for the honour and to acknowledge that I am not the winner but merely selected as the spokeswoman for the 19 other incredible women nominated in this category, business and the professions, and that I share this award with all of them.

I have a few acknowledgements to make. The first is to thank Lisa Vogt for nominating me, and the second is to thank Michael Stevenson, Chuck Jago, and Joanne Currie for supporting my nomination. They have told such terrible lies I don't know how they live with themselves.

I'd also like to acknowledge the contribution to my nomination of Jonathan Silvera, Cathie Dunlop and Pauline O'Neill. I want to recognize my husband of 26 years, Michael. Our journey has been over six provinces, nine moves, with our children in tow. Sometimes I wonder where we ever got our nerve, but then again there are still four provinces left. I want also to recognize my children, Patrick and Erin, Sean and Kelly. Each, not ordinary at all, but rather a unique and interesting person capable of changing the world.

However since I am the spokesperson, it means that I do get to speak, so I want to take this opportunity to share with you some of the things about which I have great passion. It is not often that someone like me gets the undivided attention of more than 1,000 people. This is an opportunity I cannot miss.

First I want to tell you that I am no woman of distinction, but I do want to tell you about someone who was. Exactly one month ago today I attended the funeral of a friend in Toronto. She was a friend from my days in Margaret Addison Hall at the University of Toronto. She was a floor mate and I introduced her to her husband who was one of my classmates.

I think it is fair to say she and I both walked a little bit on the wild side in those days. She eventually married and had a son. Shortly after her son was born she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Over the years, while I was living the great Canadian adventure, every time I went to Toronto I visited her. First she walked with a cane, then she was on a scooter, then she was in an electric wheel chair and then finally when I visited her last year she was in a chair that provided total support to arms, neck, and back.

She was an elementary school teacher and taught fulltime until she was no longer able, then she taught part time until she was no longer able, then she volunteered in a reading program at her neighbourhood school until she was no longer able. All the while she advocated tirelessly at first for accessibility in public buildings and then for the cause of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada.

Every time I saw her over the years she maintained her sense of humour, she smiled and we laughed at our lives old and new. She never complained or felt sorry. Her husband told me that in the last year she would try to read and sometimes it would take her over an hour to turn the page in the book.

Yet he said she never asked for help or complained. Now that was a woman of distinction. The reason I tell you about Linda is perhaps selfish. Because of who we are and where we have lived my husband and I know at least another dozen people in our circle of friends with multiple sclerosis. So what I want to say to you is this: when you have your cheque book out and have taken care of your first priority charities, being of course the YWCA and then Simon Fraser University, I hope you will save some for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. We simply must find a cure to this terrible disease.

The next thing that I want to talk to you about is very personal. Our family has lived through having a child with attention deficit disorder. What I want to say to you is this: you have no idea how hard it is when you don't connect with the world in the same way the rest of the world connects. You have no idea how hard it is to be such a child in a classroom, in a school or in a life. You have no idea how hard it is on the child. You have no idea how hard it is on the family. So what I want to say to you, particularly those of you with children in the school system, when you see these kids around you, in your children's classroom, in their cub and brownie groups, find compassion. Find all the compassion you can muster. You have no idea how hard it is on the child.

The third thing I want to talk to you about is First Nations issues. Having lived my adult life mostly in the north, I have worked with and for First Nations organizations over the past 27 years. As a result, quite often people look to me for advice about First Nations issues. The fact of the matter is that I am no expert in First Nations affairs, but the fact that I am no expert has never stopped me from giving advice in the past. So I am going to give some advice. First, listen with all your heart to the First Nations voices around us. Second, learn from First Nations people that there may be a totally different way of looking at the world, one that involves stewardship and the collective, ways in which we do not see. And finally, show respect. Then we will all move together towards the rich, diverse and multicultural society that we have the potential to be.

Finally I want to talk about a passion that will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. We are so fortunate in this city, in this province and this country to be served by great universities. Great universities are built on the three pillars of academic freedom, tenure and bicameral governance. The true mission of universities is the creation and transfer of knowledge. For centuries they have accomplished that mission by the autonomy that standing on those three pillars has given them. The mission has been set from within the academy.

Lately though we have seen a trend to the universities' missions being chosen for them by the needs of the economy and by political exigencies. Yes, the universities should respond to these requirements and yes, they should be accountable for the public monies they receive, but not exclusively. It is very important that universities maintain their autonomy. And now I am going to tell you why. Because without autonomous universities we will never find a cure for multiple sclerosis, we will never understand how attention deficit disorder children learn in classrooms and we will never recognize the potential we have as a diverse multicultural society. None of these causes either drive the economy or are favoured politically. So what I want to say to you is this: whenever you have a chance to meet your newly elected provincial politicians or your soon to be elected federal politicians hold them accountable. Ask them what they have done lately to enhance and ensure the autonomy of universities in this city, in this province and in this country.

Thank you again to the YWCA for this honour.

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