Office of the President

Andrew Petter, President and Vice-Chancellor

Petter's Perspective: Notes from the President


The transformative power of education

June 27, 2017

One of the external roles I perform as SFU president is serving on the Talloires Network (TN) Steering Committee to which I was appointed in 2015.

The TN is “an international network of universities dedicated to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education institutions.”  It was formed following a gathering of 29 heads of universities from 23 countries in Talloires, France in 2005, and now boasts over 360 member institutions around the globe.  Simon Fraser University has been a member since 2009.

This past week I attended a Steering Committee meeting and TN Leaders Conference (TNLC) hosted by the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. The three-day conference drew close to 300 participants, a third of them students, representing over 70 universities from more than 30 countries. 

The TNLC involved panels, workshops and group discussions focusing on three inter-related themes: (1) the right to education; (2) the right to leadership opportunities; and (3) the right to livelihood.

It was inspiring to be in the company of university leaders, practitioners and students from so many countries and backgrounds united in their commitment to making universities more community engaged and socially responsible.

Many strategies were explored, views discussed, and thoughts shared, but I was particularly struck by three insights that emerged over and over again throughout the conference.

The first is that commitments to community engagement and social responsibility are as beneficial for universities as they are for the communities they serve. Students gain valuable knowledge, skills and civic understanding; faculty gain access to additional sources of knowledge and opportunities to have social impact; and the institutions themselves gain a larger sense of purpose and greater community validation.

A second related insight is the value and importance of co-creation to productive community-university engagement. Students are apt to gain more benefit and satisfaction from their education when they are co-creators of their educational experiences, as typically occurs in community-based, experiential and service learning programs. Community-engaged research is likely to produce the best results and bring the greatest rewards both for the community and the researcher when it is based upon a co-creative model.  And universities generally make the best use of, and realize the greatest return from, their infrastructure and resources when they collaborate with communities to maximize benefits for both.               

The third insight arose in relation to the educational themes referred to above.  As we discussed them, it became clear that there are two ways in which they might be interpreted. One corresponds to what I would call a “production model of higher education,” in which the educational mandate of universities is preoccupied with filling student seats, training students for the labour market, and helping them to secure jobs. An alternative way of interpreting these themes corresponds to what might be called a “transformative model of higher education.” According to this view, the mandate of universities goes beyond the production model to incorporate strong commitments to fostering positive social change.  In an educational context, this requires universities to take positive steps to: welcome and support students from marginalized and underrepresented groups; enable students to gain knowledge, aptitudes and experiences that equip them not only to succeed in their own lives, but also to serve the needs of others; and help students to develop strategies and find ways to contribute to community betterment within and alongside their future careers.        

It will come as no surprise that participants expressed strong support for the transformative model, as is evident from the Veracruz Declaration that was issued at the end of the conference.

I know that most at SFU share this sentiment. Our vision to be an engaged university challenges us to be an instrument for social betterment in all that we do. We have made significant progress towards this goal, and every day I am inspired by our individual and collective ability to bring about positive change. Let’s continue to work together to harness the transformative power of education, in the lives of our students, through our research, and with our communities.               

My discussion group at TNLC 2017

(left): Signing of the Veracruz Declaration at the Talloires Network Leadership Conference in June 2017.

Photo credit: Talloires Network

TNLC 2017 closing student panel