envision>SFU: Shaping the Future of Canada’s Most Community-Engaged Research University

February 27, 2011

Remarks to the Vancouver Board of Trade
Sutton Place Hotel, Vancouver

Professor Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here, to share the SFU story and, I hope, to generate interest in envision>SFU, the strategic visioning process we currently have underway.

I regard the business community as one of our most important audiences – and you as essential participants – so I am very grateful that you made the effort to be here today.

I also want to thank the presenting and supporting sponsors: Pacific Blue Cross, Scotia Bank and McCarthy Tetrault. I know it is dangerous for a speaker to get overconfident in front of an audience, particularly one as well-informed and well-fed as this one, but I must say that, with the support of a law firm, a bank and a health insurer, I feel like I am covered for every eventuality.

My topic today is: envision>SFU: Shaping the Future of Canada’s Most Community-Engaged Research University.

We know from Maclean’s that SFU is rated the best comprehensive university in Canada.  However we also know that good things don’t stay good by standing still – they either get better or they fall behind.

That is why we have launched envision>SFU – a process to create a strategic vision to define SFU and guide its future.  I am going to speak more about that process and the role you can play within it.  But first I want to explain why I came here today, figuratively at least, on the back of a buffalo.

Anyone familiar with the writings of Blair Stonechild might recognize the reference.  In his book, The New Buffalo, Stonechild describes the importance of education to the aboriginal community.  

Here is what he says:

When you look at traditional culture, the buffalo probably provided 95 per cent of all the things that [prairie First Nations] needed.  With the buffalo gone, the question became what replaces it?  When you take a look at the struggle in the treaties, the way they were negotiated and the foresight of the negotiators, education was the thing that would guarantee the ability of First Nations people to survive in this new world.

Thus, Stonechild writes, “the new buffalo is access to education - not just elementary and secondary, but post-secondary as well.”

I might say: post-secondary especially, because post-education is not just an instrument for personal fulfilment. Treating it so would be like hunting a buffalo for a single meal and leaving the rest of the carcass behind.

A university like SFU is certainly a great vehicle for enriching human capital – for educating intellectuals, professionals, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs; but Simon Fraser also stands proudly among the world’s best research institutions, capable of expanding the scope of human knowledge. We generate ideas. We provide solutions. We create systems and invent mechanisms that have the capacity to change the future – and, in the process, to energize and diversify the BC economy.

Simon Fraser is also particularly good at linking its educational and research missions to the communities that it serves. That is why we have strived to become Canada’s most community-engaged research university: We bring the buffalo to the people.

SFU has come a long way in recent years. It is a very good place. But our task now is to look to tomorrow and, for that, I would ask you to consider three things:

  1. The benefit to students of an exceptional post-secondary education;
  2. The importance of research in a knowledge-intensive economy; and 
  3. The economic, social and cultural dividends that accrue from linking education and research to the community.

Consider first the importance to society of a great education.  Recent labour market analysis shows that we are facing an impending double-risk.  As baby boomers retire, we face an imminent labour shortage, especially in jobs that require post-secondary training.  At the same time, we run the risk of an increasing unemployment amongst people who do not have the education or training they need.

In BC, the Ministry of Regional Economic and Skills Development estimates that 77 per cent of the 1.1 million new jobs projected for the next decade will require post-secondary education; compared to 67 per cent of workers who currently meet this standard.

Thus, we have an economic problem – a looming labour shortage; and a social problem – growing unemployment.  [Or, as Rick Miner has put it: People without Jobs; Jobs without People.]

Fortunately, we also have a solution – roughly in the shape of a buffalo.

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario recently released a survey showing that college graduates earn 25 per cent more than those with only a high school diploma. And university graduates earn 50 per cent more.

Thus, education does not just fill jobs, it enhances the lives of those who benefit from it – and it enriches the communities in which they live and work. We estimate that SFU graduates alone earn an education premium of more than $1 billion – every year.

So investments in education can help build a healthy economy while reducing the individual risk of unemployment and social dislocation. It’s a big win/win.

But research intensive universities like SFU do much more than educate students. We generate ideas and innovations. We help industries run better; create new economic opportunities; and enhance our quality of life in everything from improved health to cleaner fuels to safer streets.

Let me give you an example.

We have a chemist by the name of Neil Branda, winner of the 2006 Steacie Award from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Materials Science.

Dr. Branda likes to dabble with organic molecules, figuring out what makes them switch properties. He and his students developed a molecule that is naturally colourless, but darkens dramatically when exposed to sunlight. They even figured out how to return it to its colourless state – by charging it with a small amount of electricity.

In SFU’s $40-million research centre, 4D LABS, on our Burnaby campus, this looked like a quirky bit of curiosity-driven research.

But for the spin-off company SWITCH Technologies, it looked like an opportunity whose time had come, with potential applications ranging from energy efficient windows to medical imaging, computer circuitry and even drug therapy.

SWITCH has already raised $10 million and currently employs 20 talented and well-paid people.

Which serves to make two points: First, it shows how university research can address some of society’s most pressing challenges – like energy efficiency. Second, it illustrates why university-based incubators and spin-out companies are a potent economic force.

When assessing the impact of US government stimulus money after the 2008 economic meltdown, the US Commerce Department found that it got a 30-to-1 return in tax revenue for every dollar spent through business incubators like SFU’s TIME Venture. Generating a single job on a water or sewer project cost $2,900 to $6,900; while jobs created through university-based incubators cost only $144 to $216 – and those positions were much more likely to last.

SFU has calculated the value of its research at $1.5 billion per year to the local economy. And that doesn’t include social, environmental and cultural benefits that flow from such research.
A skills shortage can be overcome with skills training. And post-secondary education improves productivity as well as employability.

While I am discussing economic contributions, let me add a couple more.

  • In 2009-2010, SFU injected about $650 million in direct spending to the economy of the Lower Mainland.
  • Our students spent another $170 million.

Combine these amounts with the other economic values I have mentioned and SFU’s economic contributions to Metro Vancouver total $3.4-billion a year.

That is a mighty big buffalo.

The question now – the question we are pursuing with envision>SFU – is what more we can do to support students, promote research, and to enrich the economy and society of Metro Vancouver and beyond.

I believe the answer is “a lot,” especially if we do it in partnership with you and others.

Let me return to my furry metaphor by observing that people often do not get close enough to buffalo to take a good look at them. I suspect the same may be true of universities. For that reason, you might not recognize what distinguishes SFU, or realize what benefits we can derive by working together.

In the world of institutional rankings, SFU is what’s known as a “comprehensive university” – a national leader in this category.

That description differentiates us from teaching universities. We are larger, we offer a wide range of graduate and professional degrees, and we pursue a level of research that has resulted in the Times Higher Education index ranking us in the top 200 of 17,000-or-so universities in the world.

At the same time, we are not what Maclean’s characterizes as a “Medical-Doctoral” university. We don’t have a medical school and we have a larger proportion of undergraduate students.

This places us in a particularly valuable position.

First, despite our size and breadth of offerings, we remain student-centred – we are able to provide undergraduates with a quality of education and level of support they might expect from a smaller, teaching institution.

At the same time, we offer students access to upper levels of scholarship, research excellence and international experience. Our undergrads are taught by leading scholars and are exposed to cutting edge research.

So we are student-centred and research-driven. But there is a third element that distinguishes SFU – and that’s the extent to which we are community-engaged.

For example, we are a leader in experiential learning, with one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive co-op programmes, and an amazing array of internships, field courses and experiential learning opportunities.

Participants in such programmes make direct economic contributions during their course of studies, even as they acquire skills, knowledge and understanding that enable them to become more active and productive citizens throughout their lives.

I have already discussed the economic benefits of university research, but SFU’s community focus gives it particular strengths in research mobilization, from research addressing pressing social and environmental problems to research incubation and business partnerships.

Perhaps the most visible examples of SFU’s community commitment, however, are physical. SFU now has campuses in BC’s three largest municipalities.

Our Vancouver campus – including our new School for the Contemporary Arts at SFU Woodward’s – has transformed key heritage properties into a major academic precinct in the downtown core.

Our stunning Surrey campus has been a catalyst for urban renewal, providing the nucleus for a vibrant new Surrey City Centre.

Looking at our impact in the Downtown Eastside and in Surrey, IPAC/Deloitte gave SFU its gold award in public sector leadership, saying “SFU’s arrival has 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.”

Now that’s the mark of a “community-engaged university!” To say nothing of SFU’s transformative role on Burnaby Mountain, where we are building UniverCity, a model sustainable community that has received accolades from around the world. [Even before the gondola goes in.]

So when you think SFU: think of a university that is student focused, research-driven, and community-engaged.

I regard these as core strengths on which we can build as we further develop and improve.

How we develop and improve rests partly with you. As a community-engaged university, we are reaching out to you and others in forging our strategic vision for the future.

We want you to tell us how we can improve our student-centred learning environment – to better educate your sons, your daughters and your grandchildren to take on the challenges of the future.

We want you to tell us how we can better mobilize our research capacities – to address economic, social and environmental needs.

We want you to tell us how we can further strengthen our community relationships – to enhance our contributions to the communities we serve

In sum, we want you to help us to envision>SFU.

Information on the envision>SFU process, including 10 questions we would like you to consider, can be found at the envision>SFU website,  where you will find further information and can provide feedback.

And let me just say that if you have previously found buffalo to be stand-offish, I encourage you to give this one a chance. I think you will find that it’s not only our fur that’s warm and fuzzy.

I want to thank you for your attention today – and thank you in advance for your ideas and suggestions as we shape the future of Canada’s most community-engaged research university.