September 08, 2005

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Creativity, vision helped shape university

SFU's founders envisioned a distinctively different institution which, reflecting the ferment of the 1960s, was radical by design.

Creating an instant university in 1965, open to 2,500 students and staff two and a half years after the decision to establish Simon Fraser University was first announced, took vision, creativity and leadership. The same ingredients have shaped the university's development more than 40 years, with enrolment now topping 25,000, programs offered at campuses on Burnaby Mountain, downtown Vancouver and Surrey Centre, and a solid reputation as one of Canada's leading universities.

Vision is an overworked term in corporate and journalistic psychobabble, but it has meaning in the creation of new institutions. SFU's founders envisioned a distinctively different institution which, reflecting the ferment of the 1960s, was radical by design:

• committed to the fundamental values of academic freedom and unfettered research as opposed to the political correctness of Cold War politics and the tight association between established universities and the military-industrial complex;

• committed to students and faculty as defining the interests of the university rather than the technocratic management of the multiversity;

• committed to inter- and cross-disciplinary research and teaching and to maximum flexibility for students as opposed to the restrictive curricular choice of orthodox, disciplinary and professional education;

• committed to innovation in programming, pedagogy and practice, rather than replicating the approaches of established institutions;

• committed to engagement in the community rather than perpetuating the elitist detachment of the ivory tower.

This vision was radical not in the loose political sense of extremism, but in the dictionary sense of commitment to fundamentals, to progressive social reform and to innovation.

Making this vision a reality took creativity and leadership. To begin with, the physical reality of the university was shaped by creativity of the highest order. Arthur Erikson's and Geoffrey Massey's master plan and designs for the core campus on Burnaby Mountain created an iconic signature for SFU - an enduring monument to the idea of the university in the modern world.

Still stunning in their modernity after 40 years, these buildings echo the classical traditions of Greek, Mayan and Mogol architecture, creating a coherent fusion that anticipates the best of post-modern architecture a quarter of a century later, and requiring the integration and contiguity of separate departments around the common functions of ceremony, artistic production and access to information.

The logic and innovation of its architecture reinforced creativity in academic planning at SFU. Innovations included the first trimesterized, full-year program at a Canadian university; the first requirement for tutorial, small group instruction in all undergraduate courses; the first Canadian athletic program involved in intercollegiate competition in the United States - the list of firsts is long.

Creativity spawned new interdisciplinary departments and schools: the ultimately unsuccessful combination of politics, sociology and anthropology and the highly successful programs in kinesiology; criminology; communication; resource and environmental management; contemporary arts, women's studies - again, the list is long.

Creativity spawned a library that overcame the limitations of collections in a brand new institution by developing the most advanced, technology-based systems linking students and faculty to information resources around the world.

And creativity drove innovative responses to the community: one of Canada's newest public universities built 15 years ago, almost entirely with private financial assistance, a campus in downtown Vancouver geared to the needs of professional and mature students in part-time degree and continuing studies.

The legacy of innovation endures. New programs and research centres continue to establish SFU's importance in Canada in interdisciplinary fields like materials science, bioinformatics, cognitive and neuroscience, mathematics and systems research, interactive arts and technology, policy analysis, urban studies, international studies, global asset and wealth management, educational leadership, public and population health, global health, biomedical technology, and medicinal biochemistry. Twenty years after SFU first argued for its involvement in the creation of a campus to serve the Fraser Valley's rapidly expanding population, we have absorbed the Technical University of B.C. and created the dynamic new SFU campus in Surrey. Our engagement in the centre of Vancouver now extends to SFU's partnership in the Woodward's project, the largest and most important urban redevelopment project in Canada.

And our commitment to innovation extends internationally, marked most recently by the establishment of a dual degree program offered to cohorts of Chinese and Canadian students taught together at SFU and Zhejiang university in the famous West Lake city of Hangzhou.

SFU's legacy of creativity has been grounded always in a commitment to the highest standards of scholarship: the sine qua non of acceptable innovation and change in higher education. The university has been regularly assessed as one of the best universities in Canada, reflecting above all the quality of faculty members and their scholarship.

SFU ranks in the top five universities in Canada for the number of grants per full-time faculty member awarded through peer-reviewed competitions for research funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and from the National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

There is, therefore, much to celebrate during this 40th anniversary year; much for which to thank those who built this legacy; much to be proud of in the continuing work of those who sustain SFU's radical commitments to innovation and social engagement. And as we celebrate the last 40 years, we do well to think of the future and of ways to ensure the continuity of these commitments.

As in the past, the continuing realization of SFU's distinctive place in the university world, will require leadership in addition to vision and creativity. And here too, we must rely on SFU's recovery of the best traditions of the university. This is not a university led by an executive head, controlled by bureaucratic planning systems, or aping the corporate style of the annual general meeting as a façade of accountability. It is rather a university in which the ancient traditions of governance, including senate and collegial decision-making have been revitalized by the fullest participation of faculty, staff and students.

This decentralized system of governance has been open, inclusive, and effective. It has also been widely accountable, meeting the most demanding requirements of government and professional accrediting agencies, public audits, regular external reviews of all programs, and independent, peer review of individual records of scholarship. Because of the demography of an institution founded 40 years ago, and because of the recent growth in university enrolment, half of all the staff employed at SFU by the end of this decade will have joined the university in this decade.

It is vital therefore, that the majority of new staff learn and buy into the vision, creativity and responsibility for leadership that has built the legacy they inherit. I have no doubt that they will, since nothing succeeds like success. The exceptional quality of new staff being recruited to build the university of the future is a testimony to the attraction of the very distinctive university that SFU has become. Long may it remain so.

Dr. Michael Stevenson is the president of Simon Fraser University.

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