SFU Public Square Launch

June 19, 2012

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor

Westbank Woodward's Atrium
SFU Vancouver

It is particularly important, when embarking on a project of this kind, that we appreciate and honour both our physical space and the social and cultural history that has brought us here – and brought us together.

As a community – as a society – it seems that we don’t get together often enough these days.  Blame it on the car.  Blame it on the suburbs.  Blame it on the myriad options we now have to distract and entertain ourselves.

It seems that, in our enthusiasm to find ever better ways to go it alone, we have lost some of the institutions and practices that are essential for working together.

It’s one of those things that we probably should have seen coming.  Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd waved an early warning flag – a very early warning flag – in 1929, with a paper entitled:  Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture.

The Lynds pointed to the increasing amounts of time people spent driving their cars and listening to the radio – and the corresponding decline in public interest in book clubs, lectures and cultural activities.

They also pointed a worried finger at the burgeoning film industry, which they found was too preoccupied with adventure and romance, and not enough with issues of serious social concern.

Neil Postman re-ignited this conversation in the 1980s with his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.  By then, we were also managing the influence of television, which Postman blamed for turning complex social issues into superficial images … for being less about ideas and more about entertainment.

And that was decades before American Idol.

A more recent, scholarly examination of this subject emerged in the year 2000 from Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  Putnam extended the list of our distractions:  We now have the internet.  We have smart phones.  We have innumerable access points to “virtual reality.”

I dare say that if I announced a short break – even now, even here – many of us would use the time to check our email rather than speak with the person standing at our elbow.

So, we have a problem.  All of these implements that were designed to provide new windows on the world have also conspired to insert glass barriers between us and our neighbours.

As the Vancouver Foundation has discovered – and I know Faye Wightman is going to speak more about this in a moment – we have, as a result, become more isolated and disconnected.

As we have fallen away from the habits of congregating, sociably and peaceably, we also have lost many of the spaces in which people traditionally gathered:  for social interaction and engagement; and for discussing, debating – and resolving – the critical issues of the day.

That was one of the points of concern we at Simon Fraser University heard last year when, in developing our new strategic vision, we embarked on one of the largest community consultations ever undertaken by a Canadian University.

During that consultation, people may not have used the term “public square,” but they clearly credited SFU for its community focus and its commitment to community engagement. 

In a society that is often polarized – in which people are practiced at expressing differences but not as good at resolving them – SFU was seen as a dependable and welcoming venue for community dialogue and deliberation.

Whether at our Wosk Centre for Dialogue or through our Philosophers Cafes, people valued SFU’s efforts to provide a virtual – and sometimes physical – public square.

We responded to that feedback with an overarching vision that commits SFU: “To be the leading engaged university defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research, and far-reaching community engagement.”

More specifically, we considered how the need expressed for safe, supportive and neutral public space also provided an opportunity, for SFU and for the community.

Building on our existing strengths, we resolved to make it part of our vision, to be “BC’s public square for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues … and the institution to which the community looks for education, discussion and solutions.”

That is the process we launch today with SFU Public Square.  Today, we reach out, to engage the whole community. 

Our students, faculty and staff have always been community leaders – active and outspoken – and they will continue to be so.  But with this initiative, SFU is committing to strategically deploy its physical, intellectual and virtual capacities to expand public participation, dialogue and discussion.

Through SFU Public Square, we will be even more purposeful about acting as convener, facilitator, and sometimes moderator.

We commit to creating safe, constructive and neutral spaces – both physical and virtual … supportive environments in which everyone can feel welcome to come together and deliberate on issues ranging from the economy to the environment … from culture to politics.  We will be B.C.’s Public Square.

Now let me offer a brief overview of our first Public Square Community Summit and to welcome our partners in that endeavor, the Vancouver Foundation.

The Summit, entitled Alone Together – Connecting in the Urban Environment, will run for six days, beginning on September 18.

It will offer a variety of venues and opportunities to engage, including a large public forum at the Orpheum, a youth camp, a mayor’s roundtable in Burnaby, and a film festival in Surrey, and events organized by community groups throughout the region.

Building on the Vancouver Foundation’s research, the Summit will seek to stimulate public interest, encourage discussion, and build strategies that promote action on isolation and disconnection in the urban environment.

In doing so, we hope that it will provide a means for bringing people together and building a stronger sense of community, in part answering the very problem its seeks to address. 

I want to take a moment to recognize the leadership of The Vancouver Foundation on this issue.  Those of you who read the article by SFU Chancellor Carole Taylor and me in the Vancouver Sun yesterday will know that the Foundation has been instrumental in shaping our plans for this Summit.

The Foundation undertook a major round of research last year that we at SFU found both concerning and inspiring – research that suggested that isolation and disconnection is, perhaps, the single most important issue standing in the way of a healthier, more functional community.