Simon Fraser in the Future

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by Diane Luckow

The presidents look ahead 40 years

Imagine SFU 40 years from now. That’s what we asked five past SFU presidents, as well as current president, Michael Stevenson, to do.

Not an easy task for some, given their long retirements. Kenneth Strand, an SFU economics professor who led the university during its most difficult and tumultuous period (1968-1974), declined to participate due to his long absence. But George Pederson, Bill Saywell, John Stubbs, and Jack Blaney all played along, as did Stevenson.

During George Pedersen’s reign, from 1979-1983, the university’s radical reputation calmed somewhat. It was Pedersen who first promoted a downtown campus, an idea that came from then Dean of Continuing Studies Jack Blaney. He also championed the engineering science program and initiated the SFU Discovery research park.

“Forty years from now, SFU is going to be considerably bigger and much more interdisciplinary than at present,” predicts Pedersen, who has served as president at all but one B.C. university. “The traditional way of looking at disciplines as narrow departments isn’t going to hold up; there’s strong evidence that students will have to work in a variety of fields to satisfy their educational needs.” He also sees SFU working more closely with other universities in B.C. and across Canada in a variety of ways, including joint teaching programs, research initiatives, and online initiatives.

A board member of the Bill Reid Foundation that is planning the Bill Reid Centre for Northwest Coast Art Studies at SFU, Pedersen hopes that more minority citizens, including First Nations, will attend the university.

Bill Saywell, who took the helm from 1983-1993, is the university’s longest-serving president. His two terms were marked by explosive growth in student numbers during a time of tremendous government restraint. During his first two years, he was faced with initiating major cutbacks and introducing dramatic tuition increases. In his second term, when the government was more forthcoming, Saywell spearheaded a new faculty hiring initiative that improved the gender balance. He also pushed ahead with the downtown campus, which opened in 1989.

While Saywell hesitates to predict SFU’s future, he does hope and expect that SFU’s fundamental characteristics, including its commitment to excellence and innovation, will continue to shape its growth.

A fan of the co-op education program, he says, “I don’t think there’s a better form of education than co-op – I hope the university continues with that.”

“In another 40 years,” he adds, “I think SFU will be a hell of a good university doing great work and having continued to gain the respect of peers across the country.”

John Stubbs became president in 1993, arriving at SFU from Trent University, where he was also president. His greatest contribution to SFU was initiating the groundwork for what has become SFU’s popular new residential and community development – UniverCity. He began discussions with the City of Burnaby and then arranged for a property trade with the city, which provided the means to move the project forward.

Stubbs left office at the end of 1997 and remained at SFU to pursue his first love – teaching. A history professor, he is also a director of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation which distributes $350 million in scholarships and bursaries each year across Canada. He sees funding for low-income students as an ongoing issue for SFU, although he expects the university will continue to diligently build on its entrance and bursary funds, drawing in part from the endowment being created from the UniverCity development.

“SFU 40 years from now will be larger, but I have a feeling that the growth to very, very large universities is going to slow down a bit,” says Stubbs. “I think people are going to resist huge, impersonalized universities.” He adds, “I think and hope that the presence of up to 10,000 people not connected to the university and living at UniverCity will provide a nice contrast and balance and an alternative view of the world so we’ll be much less isolated and living in a much more diverse community.”

Jack Blaney, who joined SFU in 1974 from UBC, became acting president between September 1997 and January 1998, then took office from February 1998 to November 2000. During his 26 years on campus, his contributions were many; foremost among them was the building of one of the most respected continuing studies programs in North America. The project he takes most pride in from his days as president is the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue which, he says, “symbolically represents things that were important to me, such as diverse groups coming together to advance shared interests.”

Despite his well-known “can do” attitude, Blaney finds future predictions questionable. In his position now as a federal government appointee to the International Joint Commission, however, he is keenly aware of the world’s problems with sustainability and says this is an area where SFU could play an even greater role, “given our interdisciplinarity, the strengths of our core disciplines, our ability to move quickly and our interest in internationalism.”

“The most important thing you can do,” he says, “is provide the opportunities for people and for communities to invent their own future.”

President Michael Stevenson joined SFU in December 2000 from York University where he was vice-president academic and provost. SFU recently reappointed him to a second term. He has spent the past five years revitalizing the university at every level, from a bold undergraduate curriculum revision to the takeover of TechBC and the formation of SFU Surrey, to major capital projects at the Burnaby campus, the new Segal Graduate School of Business downtown, the founding of a new health sciences faculty, and an ambitious $125 million capital campaign.

More than any of the past presidents, Stevenson is in a position to know what SFU can expect to achieve in the future.

He knows, for instance, that B.C.’s future includes 25,000 more post-secondary education spaces and fewer 18-year-old students, which will lessen restrictions on enrolment and eliminate the need for excessive grade point averages. He sees this as an opportunity to increase the number of out-of-province and international students.

“I think SFU will become a major international presence in the university world,” says Stevenson. “Forty years from now the university will be part of a number of international networks, whether that involves joint degree programs or international partnerships.

Nationally, he says, SFU will be better known as a uniquely exciting student experience, in part because of increased international opportunities.

The past five years have also seen a huge influx of new faculty, with more new hiring to come as the university retirement bulge continues. With new faculty and a rapidly changing society, he foresees significant changes in the university’s programming, while maintaining its focus on the liberal arts and sciences. “SFU will become known for excelling in fields that we don’t now occupy.” he says, “For example, in the health sciences we will become internationally known for our role in population health and global health management.”

Locally, he says, “40 years from now the entire campus environment will be changed by UniverCity.” The commuter campus will have disappeared and “[UniverCity] will be an enormously attractive place to live,” he says. “The interaction of the community and the university will add a whole new dimension of life and liveliness and extracurricular activity to SFU.”

While Stevenson doesn’t profess to be a futurist, he does know that universities like SFU have a culture of imagination and innovation that will always address, with gusto, emerging problems and future possibilities.

Photograph of Geroge Pedersen courtesy of SFU Media and Public Relations, Bill Saywell by Ed Chan (SFU/LIDC), John Stubbs courtesy of SFU News, Jack Blaney courtesy of SFU Media and Public Relations, Michael Stevenson by Lionel Trudel Photography