Simon Fraser University: the Making of an "Engaged University"

February 01, 2011

Remarks to the Global Civic Society's Public Salon
Playhouse Theatre, Vancouver

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

I want to speak this evening about the capacity of universities to contribute to the social, economic and environmental well-being of communities.

Universities have sometimes been portrayed as ivory towers whose academic missions require them to stand apart from society.  University founders once sought to locate their institutions at the end of peninsulas or on the top of mountains, so they could operate apart from the hurly burly of everyday life.       

Thankfully, attitudes have changed. The ideal of the “university-as-ivory-tower” has been challenged by the rise of “the engaged university” – a university whose mission is infused with a commitment to community betterment.

One local university, whose initials begin with S and end with U, has so fully embraced this mission that it has come down from its mountain to establish campuses in the heart of Vancouver and in Surrey’s emerging city centre.

It has also brought “community” up the mountain, creating a UniverCity that will house more than 10,000 residents.

SFU’s record of community engagement is one of the main things that drew me to this institution.  I know of no other university that has strived so hard to be an instrument of social betterment or contributed so much to the communities it serves.

What forms do those contributions take?  In what ways can an “engaged university” like SFU contribute to building a better society? 

The list is long, but let me give you an overview.

First: universities make vital contributions to the development of human capital.
We live in a “knowledge society” in which education is a major contributor to individual success; and an educated citizenry is an important determinant of community well-being. 

By 2020, it is projected that 77% of new jobs will require post-secondary education, up from 67% of workers who meet this standard today.  

Second: universities are major generators of new ideas and innovation. Universities perform one-third of all research in Canada, creating products and technologies, developing solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges.
Third: universities boost the economies of the communities in which they are located. By its most recent calculations, SFU contributes an astounding $3.4 billion a year to the local economy.
Contributions like these, while substantial and incredibly important to any local economy, are nevertheless common to all universities, even ivory towers.  

“Engaged universities” like SFU extend these contributions and add others through increased interaction with the communities they serve.  This happens in a number of ways.

“Engaged universities” mobilize student energy and talents through work-integrated and community-based learning.  SFU, for example, offers one of North America’s largest and most comprehensive co-op programs, along with as an array of internships, practicums, field schools, projects and service learning opportunities. These initiatives not only add value to communities in the short term; they also enable students to gain understanding, knowledge and skills that motivate and empower them to continue to make contributions for the rest of their lives.

“Engaged universities” encourage researchers to direct and mobilize knowledge to address community needs. I am hugely impressed by SFU’s efforts in this regard. These range from supporting applied research, aimed at resolving pressing social and environmental concerns, to research incubation and business partnerships aimed at translating new knowledge into economic opportunities.

“Engaged universities” also seek to provide services to enrich community life.  Consider the continuing studies programs that SFU has offered for 40 years. Consider the public lectures, media commentary, and community forums … the cultural exhibitions and theatrical performances.  Even the president pitches in sometimes if only to contribute to public salons.

In addition to all of this, truly “engaged universities” see potential in leveraging their capital investments to support social transformation and economic development.

Here too, SFU has blazed a trail: our dazzling new School for the Contemporary Arts is a core component of the remarkable Woodward’s redevelopment; and our stunning Surrey campus is providing the nucleus of what will soon become a vibrant new Surrey City Centre.
For these efforts, SFU won the 2009 IPAC/Deloitte gold award in public sector leadership.  The award credited SFU with 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.”

That’s the mark of an “engaged university.”  To say nothing of SFU’s role in restoring key heritage structures in the process of developing a downtown educational precinct that the Vancouver Sun describes as the “intellectual heart” of Vancouver.

Let me suggest one further mandate for “engaged universities” – to be an exemplar of best practices.  It’s a role SFU has taken to heart in its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint and to establish itself as one of Canada’s top 100 employers.  It’s why SFU decided that UniverCity should be a model of sustainability – a commitment that has revolutionized planning and design, and stimulated innovative thinking in the broader community.

That’s the kind of thinking that has TransLink contemplating a gondola for Burnaby Mountain, an option that promises to be more reliable, efficient and sustainable than the current diesel bus service.

You will have gathered that I’m a fan of “engaged universities.”  Such universities view civic engagement as an opportunity not only to better society, but also to better themselves. 

Such engagement enables SFU to: 

  • deliver programs that are more stimulating and relevant;
  • educate students who are more savvy and aware;
  • produce research that is more informed and applicable;
  • develop an institutional culture that is more open and diverse.

However, as much as SFU is a leader in community engagement amongst Canadian research universities, I am convinced there is still more we can and should do. 

To that end, I am about to launch “envision>SFU” – a process aimed at developing a strategic vision for SFU that builds on our strengths as a university that is student-centred, research-driven and, yes, community-engaged.

And given we are community-engaged, we want to engage the community in this process.

 So please, check the SFU website starting February 10th to find out how you can help us to envision an SFU that is even more engaged with – and adds even more value to – the communities it serves.