envision>SFU Launch

February 10, 2011

Remarks at envision>SFU launch
SFU Vancouver

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

Thanks for being here for the launch of envision>SFU, a process to develop a strategic vision for Simon Fraser University.

Why does SFU need a strategic vision?  Isn’t SFU already doing well?

You bet it is.  In its 20th annual ranking of Canadian universities, Maclean’s has once again named SFU as the best comprehensive university in the country. The Times Higher Education survey this year put SFU among the top 200 – out of more than 17,000 universities and colleges around the world.

As someone who did my own due diligence before accepting the job as president, I don’t find this surprising.  SFU has incredible strengths:

  1. We have strong commitments to both undergraduate and graduate teaching.  While other research universities have allowed their focus on research to distract them from their teaching mission, SFU has redoubled its efforts to improve the quality of its undergraduate programs, even as it has developed major new graduate offerings.
  2. We are an outstanding research university.  SFU has quadrupled its research income over the past decade, and last year we led comprehensive universities both in research impact and in 10-year publication growth.
  3. We are a national leader in terms of university-community engagement.  With a campus in each of B.C.’s three largest municipalities – Burnaby, Surrey and Vancouver – we have shown how an “engaged research university” can benefit – and transform – the communities it serves. We have also discovered the degree to which this engagement enhances the learning experience of our students and research opportunities for our faculty.       

So why do we need a strategic vision?  There are two main reasons:

First, it is critical that we identify, understand and communicate SFU’s strengths and qualities. If we are truly the best comprehensive university in Canada, we want to be sure that we know what makes us so.

We also want to be sure that everyone else knows it, too. That’s a responsibility that we owe equally to our students and our alumni, to faculty and staff, and to funders and supporters.

When graduates walk into a job interview with an SFU degree featured on their resume, people should know how valuable that degree really is.

When researchers bid for funding, the granting agencies should fully comprehend the strength of the institution standing behind them.

And everyone, from philanthropists and taxpayers to parents who help with tuition, should know what value they are getting for their investment.

The second goal for a strategic vision is the setting of a strategic direction. Great things don’t stay great by staying put. They either get better – or they get overtaken. It’s our task to make sure SFU keeps getting better. 

Beyond those major goals, a strategic vision has the potential to help in a number of specific ways:

  • It can help students, faculty, staff and alumni to develop a stronger sense of shared enterprise and community, enabling us to focus on and to celebrate who we are, and to be less concerned with who we are not;
  • It can help us convey our strengths and commitments to others – such as governments, community members and supporters – giving them a greater sense of how our qualities and contributions set us apart from other post-secondary institutions.
  • It can help us move forward, ensuring that the decisions we make align with our core strengths and commitments. Our resources are not infinite: we need to understand how best to focus them – not just to stay at the front of the pack, but to redefine what it is to be the best and most community-engaged research university in the country.

So where do we begin?  How do we develop a strategic vision that will do justice to SFU – that will differentiate us today and inspire us tomorrow?

I have suggested that we start by focusing on SFU’s core strengths as a university that is: “student-centred; research-driven; and community-engaged.”

I believe that these three attributes can provide a framework for our strategic vision, not only as they stand alone, but also in the ways that they interconnect.

Consider the relationship between research and learning:

By maintaining undergraduate education as a core and valued component of our educational mission, SFU offers undergraduate students the best of all worlds:  they get a supportive learning environment; and they enjoy exposure to leading scholars, graduate student mentors, research activities and international opportunities.

This is a combination that teaching universities cannot provide, and that many large research universities can no longer manage as a priority. It is a combination that also benefits faculty, by virtue of the vitality, curiosity and contemporary thinking that undergraduates bring into the academy. 

Consider the relationship between learning and community engagement:

By linking education to community needs through co-op programs, internships, practicums, field schools, and other experiential learning opportunities, SFU enables its students to strengthen communities in a myriad of ways.

At the same time, those students gain an education that is more varied and relevant, one that causes them to be socially conscious and civically engaged, and that better equips them to chart their future careers.         

Consider the relationship between community engagement and research:

As Canada’s most community-engaged research university, SFU encourages and supports researchers who wish to mobilize their knowledge to address community needs.

This ranges from applied research that is directed to resolving social and environmental concerns, to research incubation and business partnerships, aimed at translating knowledge into economic opportunities. 

Again, communities and researchers both gain from this interaction.    

Thus I believe that we can go a long way in developing SFU’s strategic vision by making sure that people inside and outside the university fully understand our commitments to being “student-centred, research-driven, and community-engaged” and by exploring the relationships amongst these three strengths.

But this is just a starting point. We also need to consider other commitments – such as to interdisciplinarity, internationalization, indigenous knowledge, diversity and sustainability.

How should all of these be reflected in our strategic vision?

Over the next three months, envision>SFU will provide an opportunity for you to participate in the creation of that strategic vision.

We are asking students, members of faculty and staff, and alumni to help us create a strategic vision that captures what they think is best about SFU, and what can make it even better.

And, given that community engagement is a hallmark of SFU, we are also extending this invitation to the wider community. Wherever you live, whatever you do, we hope you will tell us how SFU can best meet your own hopes and expectations and those of the community in which you live.

To assist in this process, we have fashioned 10 questions for you to consider.  

Through your answers to these questions, and your participation in this process, you can help to shape an SFU that is the best university of its kind, not just in the Maclean’s rankings, but in the hearts and minds:

  • of SFU students, faculty, staff and alumni;
  • of the taxpayers and philanthropists who support our research and operations;
  • of the employers who are lucky enough to engage an SFU graduate;
  • and of the communities we serve – in every way we know how.

Help us to envision>SFU – so we can continue to be, for everyone’s benefit, the best university of our kind.

Click here for the envision>SFU website