President Stevenson reflects on first year

Apr 04, 2002, vol. 23, no. 7

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A year into his presidency, SFU President Michael Stevenson met with members of the campus community in an open forum held earlier in the winter semester, to share his thoughts on the university's achievements and challenges. He reflects on what SFU has accomplished, the financial challenges ahead and its future direction, in an interview with SFU News.

Assessing your first year, what developments stand out?

It's been a wonderful year, with a lot of interesting developments, some predictable, some not. That's how life around an exciting university ought to be.

Early in my term we got the last government to agree to a downtown relocation of the school for the contemporary arts, a project that is ongoing, although not yet funded. We also signed an imaginative consortium arrangement with UBC, Emily Carr and BCIT to acquire a gift of very valuable land on the False Creek flats.

And we received very generous assistance in securing a site in the downtown core (the former Bank of Montreal) allowing us to develop a major project for our graduate programs in business. We have recently received funding to establish a satellite campus in Surrey, picking up from TechBC, and we have succeeded in being designated the preferred site for a significant new facility as part of the 2010 Olympic bid.

On other fronts, we've continued to develop a major strategic initiative in health, through the Institute for Health Research and Education. Another key project involves an energetic new push in our international agenda with the creation of SFU International.

The ongoing curriculum reform exercise will result in significant new developments for students, and for the identity and distinctiveness of the SFU degree. And our information systems planning is being advanced in a more integrated and coherent way with the guidance of a new chief information officer, Jim Cranston.

Recruitment and retention have been a constant preoccupation, given a rapidly changing demography and increasingly competitive market. I'm impressed by the quality of people we're hiring in every area of the university.

What are your priorities in the year ahead?

Completing the projects I've mentioned is already a full agenda. All of our efforts ought to be honed to completing them.

However, other recent developments will make their mark. The government's Double-the-Opportunity initiative will mean a very large expansion of our activity in computing science and engineering. We're not yet sure how the infrastructure and capital funding will be arranged, but one way or another, there will be a considerable transformation of the campus because of it.

In a few weeks we'll be announcing a call for proposals to developers as the Burnaby Mountain community project becomes a reality. There should be shovels in the ground by next fall. That will realize dreams that long predate my presidency. But I'm as excited as everyone else.

I also expect to see a plan for residence expansion in the near future. It's imperative we establish more conventional residential space. We also have to make a success of the SFU campus in Surrey.

Why create a Surrey campus?

We felt a moral obligation to students whose careers were seriously threatened for reasons not of their making. The demands for access to university in the Fraser Valley, which led to the original creation of TechBC, still had to be satisfied, and we are best positioned to do so.

The move builds on the historical interest of SFU in that catchment area, from which we already get 25 per cent of our student body. It also gives us a great opportunity to raise SFU's profile and diversify the range of our programs in applied sciences.

How are these events helping to position SFU in this new era?

They all show a tremendous momentum still at work in this institution, an enormous vitality and a continuing capacity and appetite for innovation.

We're heading into a much more competitive and differentiated world in Canadian university education. SFU is going to need that vitality and innovative capacity in order to maintain its reputation at the top.

We need to be sure our core programs in the liberal arts and sciences are as good as anywhere, and continue to develop real centres of excellence in applied and professional programs, as we have done in the past.

We need to insist that an SFU degree is distinct, across the whole range of programs, and that those who graduate here will be leaders in their fields.

Collectively, we can become internationally recognized in the same company as the most outstanding universities in the world that don't have medical schools and all the traditional professional programs: universities like the LSE, the Ecoles Normales, MIT, and Santa Barbara. They are the benchmarks I have in mind when I think about SFU's future. I don't see why we shouldn't be in that company.

What are the financial challenges ahead?

Universities have been well treated by this government relative to support in other areas. This is a position of relative privilege, but not without challenges, including a projected operating budget deficit of $8.9 million.

We were expecting that a zero budget meant zero increase, but in fact our letter from the government now shows that the government grant will decline over the next three years.

Increases to our operating grant are tied to special requirements such as SFU in Surrey, and increased access in the areas of computing science and information technology. These targeted funds don't address the increased funding needs of our ongoing programs.

It's also pretty clear that within the three-year budgeting framework established by the government, we aren't going to be able to cover inflationary cost increases for personnel, goods and services.

Adding pressure, the government is also requiring universities to take on more enrolment in established programs, without additional funding. So, with respect to operating grant support per full-time equivalent student, funding in relation to enrolment will continue its decade-long decline.

Using 2001 constant dollars, grant support per FTE has dropped from a high of $9,800 a decade ago to $8,900 next year, falling to $8,200 in three years.

What will SFU's response be?

We can either cut resources from our programs or increase tuition and other sources of revenue. Endowment funds are slow to generate the kind of numbers we need, though they will help the long-term picture.

The short run pressure is on tuition fees. That's been my expectation from day one. Once the government changed, it was clear that the balance of public and private funding to universities was going to change.

The focus now is on developing a tuition policy that will not only sustain but enhance quality in programs where, under the constraints of a six-year tuition freeze, we've been operating with at least one hand tied behind our backs.

What kind of tuition increase do you anticipate?

Anyone who looks at what UBC and UVic have done can see where the problem lies. Both of these institutions have implemented premium fees among professional, quasi-professional and some undergraduate programs.

In the absence of disciplines like law and the health sciences, SFU doesn't have the same room for manoeuvre. So, I suspect we'll go to a slightly different formula, somewhat higher in basic fee increases and with less differentiation.

What do you expect reaction will be?

Students in general won't welcome this with open arms. But I think the majority of students recognize that our tuition fees are well below the national average - 44 per cent below. When they realize that tuition currently makes up only 16 per cent of total student costs, most will accept the tuition increase as necessary in order to sustain and enhance the quality of their education.

It's important to note, however, that in conjunction with any increase we will need to significantly improve financial assistance to students who are economically disadvantaged.

We are currently consulting on these problems throughout the community and will be making specific recommendations to the board of governors, beginning with a notice of motion in April. The board will debate it in May.

Will you continue to lobby government and look at alternative funding sources?

Our lobbying efforts have been highly successful in the sense that the government has given universities priority in their budget and planning. But there remain serious issues for us. There are, for example, major weaknesses in programs and funding for university research in this province. Unless it improves, the contributions of universities to research and innovation will be seriously threatened.

We also need to investigate new ways of forming partnerships with the private sector. While insisting that university autonomy is respected, we're open to exploring partnerships that might provide a solution to the deplorable shortage of residence space, or lack of athletic facilities, which have not improved in 20 years.

What's your message to the community?

The sky is certainly not falling in. Jobs are not being threatened and we've made a commitment to delivering on negotiated agreements. There is no crisis now, nor a crisis impending.

There will be a lot of pressure on fees and on managing how we deliver our existing programs within tighter constraints. However, once the global economy turns around and the provincial economy picks up, we will be in very good shape providing we press on with the very exciting agenda of new initiatives currently underway at SFU.

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