Installation Address

Professor Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chanceller
Simon Fraser University

October 07, 2010

Mr. Chancellor, Chief Justices, members of the Board of Governors and Senate, faculty members, honoured guests,

On this wonderful day – for me as well as for you – I offer a warm welcome and hearty congratulations to graduands, families, and friends.

I can truly say that I share your sense of excitement. And I want to thank you for allowing my installation as president to be part of your graduation day.

For this is your day – one that you have earned!  It must feel like a superlative triumph – a glorious conclusion.  And it is!  But I hope that you leave today also thinking that this is the most auspicious of beginnings.

“Education,” as W.B. Yeats observed, “is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  I see that flame burning brightly in each of your eyes today.  It is the fire that will sustain you in the years ahead.

I was reminded of the power of that fire this past summer when Maureen and I were packing to move to our new home on Burnaby Mountain.   As I was leafing through some files, I found this scrap of paper that my mother had sent me in the late ‘90s when I was Minister of Advanced Education.

On it is another quotation, this one from Nelson Mandela.  It reads:

“Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mine worker can become the head of a mine, that the child of a farm worker can become the president of a great nation.  It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”

Sadly my mother is no longer with us. Yet this scrap brought home how much she remains with me.

She was a huge believer in education.  She and my father not only implanted in me the value of universities, but they also supported me at every stage of my educational journeys.

And here she still was, as I prepared to embark on another educational adventure, ready to provide me some wisdom that has lost nothing in the passage of time.

In a message beneath Mandela's quote, penned in my mother’s distinctive script, is written:  “I found this as I was cleaning up.  I thought you might want to use it when you need more funds in your ministry.”

I don’t recall whether it worked at the time. [Treasury Board, then as now, tended to be unmoved by such appeals.]  Yet there are two wonderful lessons to be learned from this little piece of paper.

One is that we should stop once in a while to thank our mothers – and our fathers, our uncles and aunts – our spouses and everyone else who has believed in us and helped us get to where we are.

There are many such people at this convocation today, fair bursting with pride at your accomplishments.

Well … you should be proud of them, too! You stand on their shoulders, and you should always remember them as you admire the view.

The other lesson from my mother’s note is the one she intended at the time:  that education, more than any other force, has the capacity to lift the human condition – to improve any individual and to advance every organization.

Education prepares us to make a better job of our own lives, and to enrich the lives of those around us.  In building our own capacity, we become better able to improve our workplace, our neighbourhood, our community – indeed the whole world.

That, beginning today, is your challenge … and, even as a new president, I am proud of the role that SFU has played in bringing you to this moment.

I’m not sure why you chose Simon Fraser, but I’d like to tell you what drew me to this remarkable institution.

There are really three things, beginning with its deep commitment to you, the students.

At a time when some large universities have shifted their focus away from undergraduate students, Simon Fraser has redoubled its efforts to be student-centred … to honour undergraduates as well as graduates as keepers and carriers of the educational flame.

A second thing I admire is SFU’s outstanding record of research.

We academics can’t help but watch for and count measurements of success – in our own institutions and others. 

In doing so, I have been impressed in recent years to see SFU gain recognition for achieving the greatest research growth and highest research intensity among Canadian comprehensive universities … and for attaining the best record of publication effectiveness.

The third outstanding attribute is Simon Fraser's connection to community:

I love the fact that the Vancouver Sun has referred to SFU’s downtown campus as the “intellectual heart” of the city.  And that was before the recent opening of the School for Contemporary Arts in the renewed Woodward’s complex.

I am excited that, South of the Fraser, SFU’s stunning Surrey campus has transformed what was a suburban shopping mall into the heart of what is soon to become a vibrant new City Centre.

And I am captivated by the vision, here on Burnaby Mountain, of adding to one of the most beautiful campuses on earth a UniverCity – a community that enlivens the university while providing a model of sustainability.

One that Maureen and I are now proud to call home.

Through these and other initiatives, SFU has set a new standard for community engagement, acknowledged last year with a gold award for public sector leadership in education from the Institute of Public Administration of Canada. 

The Institute praised SFU for having:  “turned around the fortunes of struggling communities and set the stage for new levels of university-stakeholder partnerships that enhance the region’s ability to support growing knowledge-based economies with a highly trained workforce.”

These are the things that drew me to SFU.  And these are the reasons that I feel so very privileged to be here with you today.

I am honoured to be associated with a truly comprehensive university:

  • One in which undergraduate students are challenged and inspired by their exposure to leading scholars, graduate students, international opportunities, and other benefits that only a research-intensive university can provide them;
  • A university in which faculty members and graduate students gain stimulus and energy from undergraduates brimming with fresh ideas and diverse community perspectives;
  • A university that relishes its relationships with the communities it serves – a thriving, driving engine for citizen engagement, economic development and community betterment.

This is the very model of what I believe a post-secondary institution should be – student-centred, research-driven, community-engaged!

A place, I hope you’ll agree, where we have lit and stoked Yeats’ fire.

And so we have reached a moment of pride and accomplishment – for you as graduands and for me as SFU’s new president.  Yet neither of us can afford to rest on our laurels.

For you, it’s time to take up Mandela’s challenge of medicine, or business, or perhaps even of leading a great nation in a bold and better direction.

For me, the challenge is to draw out of this institution the best it can be … and to work with others to make it even better.

These things will not come easily … nor can they be accomplished alone.

In today’s world, you are likely to experience numerous changes throughout your working life requiring new knowledge and skills.

When those occasions arise, I want SFU to be there for you.
I want you to count on Simon Fraser as your education provider, your guide – your lifelong partner in learning

Just as you will continue to need us, we will continue to need you.  As we strive to improve SFU, your energy and ideas will be more valuable and important to us than ever.

I ask you to stay involved, to help fashion our future, and to deepen and strengthen our community ties.

Beyond this, we must never forget that the purpose of education is to expand our ability to help others … to contribute to the construction of a healthier, stronger and more just society.   

Each one of you has the capacity to make such a contribution.

You have the gifts of your birth, the support of the people who brought you to this day, and now you have a level of education that is available to only the luckiest people on earth.

So let us resolve together, from this time and place, to join in a common commitment not only to better ourselves, but to strive each day to build a better world for all.

And in doing so, let us be guided by Mahatma Gandhi’s credo: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Once again, my congratulations to you all!