Writing the Book about SFU
Someone recently asked what I enjoyed most about doing a history of SFU, and I found it difficult to answer. I wasn’t prepared to choose any one part of the process. It had all been engaging – the interviews, the hunt for material, the wider reading, the pondering, and the writing. How do I explain it? First of all, the experience took me back to the beginnings of my career and led me to investigate things I did not fully understand at the time. In fact, I began to say to myself that I was doing research I ought to have done 37 years ago, before deciding to come to SFU. Then I would have had a better grasp of what happened around me.
But I have valued this project mainly because I’ve come to believe with certainty that SFU has an important story to tell. At a social event recently, a former member of the Harvard business faculty asked, “Does SFU have a history?” It was a fair question considering Harvard’s institutional life of nearly 400 years and SFU’s 40. But if you think that history “teaches by example,” then SFU has many original examples for a contemporary university audience.
SFU came into existence when it was revolutionary to think that a new university could be an academic leader. Up to that point, new universities or colleges had developed under the trusteeship or guardianship of older ones. New universities were followers that developed within established parameters. But SFU had its start when governments were beginning to look to new universities for innovation - because they were free of the weight of established practice. And SFU had an unfettered start that was unprecedented in Canada. The spirit with which SFU began was deliberately one of doing things differently; and that was a spirit that became an integral part of the university’s personality.
When I arrived in the summer of 1968, SFU abounded with stories of the happenings of the first three years. It seemed like everyone had an analysis of what was going on. The oral history – or mythology – about the place was rich, and while some of our collective memory has gone, much has been retained, at least until recently. The careers of nearly 200 faculty members and a great many members of our administrative staff have spanned most of SFU’s existence. With them and with our alumni has resided a great library of anecdote and explanation – too large in fact for me to fully exploit in the time I have had.
I had my introduction to the SFU story when I was interviewed in London for a position in history. My interviewer was Warren E. Williams, a charter member of the history department who was in London doing research in the British Museum. This was my only interview and when Williams decided I passed muster, the department and university accepted his recommendation and I got the job. (That was the way hiring was conducted in those early years.) During the interview, which lasted several hours in a pub near the British Museum, Williams made SFU seem like an exciting place. Then he did something that I’ve never heard in any other interview. He warned me against accepting the job and said the place was highly politicized and in a mess. I didn’t think it could be as bad as he was saying and disregarded his advice.
After I made my decision, my parents in Ontario began sending newspaper clippings about the amazing turmoil going on at the university I had chosen. SFU’s summer of revolt occurred between my hiring and my arrival in Vancouver. That was the summer when Martin Loney, SFU’s nationally famous student radical, commanded mass meetings in the mall; when department after department overturned its appointed head and adopted democratic decision-making under the leadership of an elected chair; and when SFU had four presidents in quick succession, beginning with Patrick McTaggart-Cowan, the founding president chosen by Chancellor Gordon Shrum, and ending with Ken Strand, the choice of faculty and some students.
In revisiting this history after the intervention of nearly four decades, I’ve come to understand that SFU was actually created twice. The first creation, between 1963 (when the original planning began) and 1968 (when faculty and students rose in revolt) belonged to Gordon Shrum. The second, between 1968 and 1974, was under the leadership of Ken Strand. The legacy of the first was energy and promise, and of the second, democratic structures and stability. Wrapped up in this story were countless debates about what a university is and how it should be run. And complicating it all was the association of strong personalities with particular positions.