Opening a Public Square: SFU closes gap in “disconnected” community

June 18, 2012

The Vancouver Sun Op-ed

Andrew Petter, President and Vice-Chancellor
Carole Taylor, Chancellor

What is the issue of greatest concern in Metro Vancouver?

The Vancouver Foundation asked that question last year in one of the largest public consultations in its history – and it got a surprising response.  It wasn’t poverty or homelessness, although those both made the short list.  The issue that respondents reported as giving them the most concern was one that speaks directly to every member of our community and that touches on the very fabric of our society.  It was isolation and disconnection. It was a concern that our sprawling metropolis is “fragmented, disjointed, split along economic, ethnic, social, even geographic lines.”

The Foundation turned up this result at the same time that Simon Fraser University was itself engaged in one of the biggest public consultations ever conducted by a Canadian university.  We weren’t looking for trouble spots.  Rather, we were working on a vision:  we were trying to understand what people valued most about SFU and what we could do to make the institution even better.

But we gleaned a result that was strikingly similar to that identified by the Vancouver Foundation.  Our respondents – within the university, but especially in the broader community – told us that they most valued SFU’s community engagement.  In a world too inclined to be parsed into highly disconnected areas of specialty, they appreciated that SFU seemed historically inclined to pull things – and people – together.

We took that response to heart, and from it, created a new vision:  “To be the leading engaged university defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research, and far-reaching community engagement.”  We further resolved to be “BC’s public square for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues …. the institution to which the community looks for education, discussion and solutions.”

That was the vision.  Tomorrow, we begin – officially – putting it into practice.  We launch SFU Public Square, a signature initiative designed to restore, engender or nurture community connections.  Our public square is not a single physical space, although SFU is blessed with a host of spaces in all three of its campuses that are ideal for the purpose.  Rather, SFU is committing to put its physical, intellectual and virtual capacities to work to support public dialogues and discussions.  SFU will act as convener, facilitator – and sometimes moderator. Our faculty, staff and students will undoubtedly participate as commentators and contributors.

But the point, in a province where partisanship and passion have sometimes conspired against solutions, is for this to be the public’s square.  It will be a safe and neutral space where we may honour the BC tradition for outspokenness – for frankness and vigor in debate – while still providing a supportive environment in which everyone can feel welcome to engage on issues ranging from the economy to the environment, from culture to politics.

Given SFU’s own history, the role seems a natural.  As early as 1965, the year of our founding, SFU students inaugurated the aptly-named Freedom Square at our Burnaby Mountain campus with a series of massive rallies in defence of academic freedom.

We have also continued this tradition – reinvigorated by our new vision – in anticipation of the formal launch of SFU Public Square. We recently facilitated the City of Vancouver Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing.  And our lunchtime series, City Conversations, has drawn standing-room only crowds to engage with experts and decision-makers on issues ranging from the strength and potential of B.C.’s artistic community to the future of the viaducts in False Creek.

Perhaps most appropriately, we will partner with the Vancouver Foundation this September in our first annual SFU Public Square summit, specifically to explore issues of disconnection and isolation.  We hope that this week-long summit will both deepen our understanding of those issues even as it begins to forge the community connections that will be part of the solution.

British Columbia has a tradition of polarization in which public discourse has often been based on preconceived positions, and has often featured the drawing of lines rather than the finding of solutions. Today, however, there are too many issues – social, cultural, economic and environmental – that we need to resolve.

With this in mind, SFU is excited, with our new mantle as “the engaged university,” to launch SFU Public Square.  By doing so, we hope to open up physical and virtual spaces where we and the public can engage to overcome isolation, and go on to address the myriad other challenges that face our communities – both locally and globally.  We hope you’ll join us.