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A history of fearless leadership and innovation: SFU dynamo Catherine Murray retires

September 14, 2021
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By Gladys We

Dr. Catherine Murray is looking relaxed. It’s a big change from the last time I saw her, when she was packing up her office and getting it organized for Dr. Lara Campbell, her successor to the role of Associate Dean, Undergraduate Students, for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS). Her position was the centre of a whirlwind of activities, from helping get new programs approved to studying enrolment projections to organizing workshops on emergency preparedness and so much more.

Murray is now preparing for retirement, and is meeting me for one final interview to look back at her career. She came to SFU in 1992 from her previous position as Vice President, Media and Telecommunications, at Decima Research. At the time, she was finishing up work for Decima on Charlottetown Accord Referendum  (an ill-famed “dog’s breakfast” on constitutional reform in Canada) and SFU’s School of Communication (CMNS) was looking for a savvy media and policy researcher.  

"Catherine Murray honoured SFU with a career of dedication and service that was above and beyond,” says Carman Neustaedter, Dean for the Faculty of Communication, Art and Technology (FCAT). “And her influence will most certainly help guide the next generation of researchers and administrators."

Her experience teaching at York and working at Decima in Toronto allowed her to bring a host of fresh ideas to the academy. I was a student in her newly revised communications policy class, and Murray didn’t just send us into the depths of the library to look up dusty CRTC rulings to write essays on what we found. Instead, she had us research all aspects of a policy and then invited CRTC commissioners to preside over a mock trial commission. Dressed in our best business accoutrements, we presented plausible cases and interacted with the professionals we aspired to be. And then we received their judgements and decisions as if it were a real CRTC commission. This teaching practice based in “real-world” experiences proved central to Murray’s career at SFU.

“I came to SFU because it was an exciting place to be,” Murray recollects. “People were committed to comprehensive university ideals, and I was intrigued by the possibilities of work that was being done by people embedded in their communities. I wanted to help students become citizens who were able to gather information and act on it.”

Murray jokes that, as a student, she had envied SFU when it was the launch pad of the first program in Women’s Studies in the 70s. Murray’s work for gender equity persisted throughout her career. She became Chair of SFU’s Academic Women group in 2008, and helped implement a pay equity survey in 2016 , leading to an across-the-board salary adjustment.

Throughout her time at SFU, Murray’s exemplary administrative service has been a boon to the units she’s served. Moving to Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies (GSWS) in 2009, she served as Chair from 2009–2012. She then returned to CMNS as Associate Director from 2013–14. From 2016-2020, Murray served as FASS’s Associate Dean, Undergraduate Programs, completing her term just as the pandemic’s impact was moving into its third semester.

During her 4-year term as FASS’s Associate Dean, Murray helped launch several new programs, including the Social Data Analytics and Creative Writing Minors. At a time when enrolments in humanities programs were declining worldwide, she helped our Faculty find ways to slow the decline at SFU. Murray’s idea about experimenting with micro-credit courses turned into our FASS First courses, which have proven popular to all SFU students.

Murray says, “I’m proudest of being a thorn in the side of SCUS and Senate, where I helped to fast-track the Indigenous Languages Program and defended admission policies for students with diverse qualifications. I’m happy to see our strong commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion is growing at SFU and delighted to see the changes in our university executive leadership, Senate and Board of Governors.”

Other accomplishments throughout Murray’s career at SFU include being elected to the Board of Governors twice, service on Senate and working with the Cities of Surrey and Vancouver on their cultural policies.  

She is perhaps best known for bringing in Edward Snowden to be a speaker for the President’s Dream Colloquium in 2016, but Murray can also be credited with helping to stabilize SFU’s Indigenous University Preparation Program with the temporary re-location of this program to FASS in 2017, and together with the senior academic leadership team in FASS, positioning FASS to meet some of its EDI goals by becoming home to 50% women continuing faculty members (SFU’s average is 39% women faculty).

“I learned so much from Catherine through the years,” says former FASS Dean, Jane Pulkingham.

“Her seemingly boundless energy, vitality and leadership as Associate Dean responsible for all-things-undergraduate students (experience, teaching and learning, and programming) really helped FASS change-up how we approached student engagement through learning, and programming. At times I found myself breathless in the wake of the field of creative ideas Catherine pitched but I am truly glad I persisted in trying to keep up! FASS is enriched by the legacy of Catherine’s resourcefulness and dedication. Jane Pulkingham, former Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

Murray also pushed for a percentage of international student revenues to fund refugee students, and then put her own money where her heart is. She started the Refugee Undergraduate Fund for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in the aftermath of the Syrian refugee crisis. The fund already has supported a number of extraordinary students.  To donate to the fund and receive a tax receipt, click here:

“I’m indebted to my students, my colleagues, and the institution that is SFU,” says Murray.

“I think public comprehensive universities are going to face some profound challenges in the climate crisis, pandemic, and attendant cultural value- shifts, but I have faith that SFU will be able to adjust our systems of governance, find the courage and maintain our collegiality in order to face the future together.”  

As colleagues articulate below, Murray’s energy and creativity continue to reverberate throughout the university.  If you have a fond memory or tribute about Catherine Murray you would like to share, please email fasscomm@sfu.ca to have your comment added.

"Catherine is a dynamo—her energy is amazing and her enthusiasm contagious. As a teacher and leader, she inspired generations of students and helped make the School of Communication a preeminent site of feminist cultural and media policy studies. She leaves a deep intellectual legacy in the School."
- Zoë Druick, Director and Professor, School of Communication

"Catherine has a unique ability to gauge the political pulse of the time. I recall taking a course with her as a an undergraduate in Fall 2001, and one week into the course 9-11 happened. She swiftly changed the course syllabus to focus on a study of the media's coverage of the attacks. Through her mentorship, students were empowered to navigate the difficult terrain of primary research, and it was the catalyst for my own graduate work--under her supervision. Her graduate students have given her many nicknames over the years, including Saint Catherine, reflecting her generosity of spirit and kindness. I've always thought of her as the Meryl Streep of academia: a true tour de force, principled, and unparalleled. Her mind wanders in a million different directions at any given time, and it's not always easy to follow her train of thought and her erudite vocabulary. I used to tell fellow graduate students who would leave her office confused that if they only absorbed 10% of her feedback they'd be in excellent shape. Her legacy in communication, policy, and gender studies will live on for years to come."
- Daniel Ahadi, Senior Lecturer, School of Communication