Address to Vancouver Probus Club

October 08, 2013

Address to the Vancouver Probus Club
Marine Drive Golf Club, Vancouver

Professor Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Thank you Don for that kind introduction and thank you all for the welcome.  It’s a pleasure to be with you today.  It’s always a pleasure when a group such as yours shows a real interest in SFU; and I am delighted to bring you up to date on the SFU story.

Given the composition of the room, I’m going to make a couple of assumptions in telling that story. First, I’m going to assume that most of you remember the 1960s – or perhaps you heard about the highlights from an older brother or sister.

And I will assume that many of you have been in the Vancouver region for a reasonably long time – that you remember when SFU was an upstart institution on some distant mountain, famous for its radical professors and its unruly hippy students.

I imagine that some of you may actually have been SFU students – although I will take it on faith that none of you was ever unruly and that you got over the hippy thing byhe time you inerviewed for your first serious job.

I suspect we can agree, though, that 1965 – the year SFU opened its doors to its first students – was a long time ago, nearly half a century. Even if it sometimes feels like yesterday.

In the meantime, however, SFU has, most assuredly, arrived. For example, we have been ranked in the annual Maclean’s survey the best comprehensive university in Canada – for each of the past five years.

According to the QS international rankings, SFU is also among the top 30 of the world’s best universities under 50 years of age, and among the top 3 in North America.  

We are also the only comprehensive university in Canada to post a top-10 performance in the Higher Education Strategy Associates’ ranking of research performance in both the Science and Engineering and in the Social Sciences and Humanities categories.

We take special pride in our record of mobilizing research – of turning good ideas from the library and the lab into economic development and social betterment.

In the past decade, SFU has incubated, accelerated and spun out more than 200 companies, adding 2,400 jobs to our local economy and contributing $186 million in annual tax revenues. The Impact Group’s 2012 Report on Invention Disclosures places SFU in the top 10 for disclosures per million dollars of research funding — a measure of "bang for the buck."

So, clearly SFU is no longer an upstart … nor even a start-up.  And yet, as we prepare to celebrate our 50th anniversary, I like to say that, in culture and attitude at least, SFU has grown up without growing old.

We have retained the sense of adventure that marked our first decade.  Indeed, we have taken it well beyond our original boundaries.  Looking back, there never was a chance that SFU’s faculty or its students would allow themselves to be confined to Burnaby Mountain. There was never a chance that we would not share the best of what we have to offer.

This quality, this tendency to engage with the community, has coalesced in the last couple of years into a Strategic Vision that establishes SFU as Canada’s “engaged university.” Rather than describe that vision, I’d like to share a short video that will show you what that Vision is all about.

So there you have it: We have resolved to be the “engaged university:”

  • By engaging our students – so as to equip them with the knowledge, skills and experiences that prepare them for life in an ever-changing and challenging world.
  • By mobilizing our research – so as to ensure that our knowledge and ideas benefit society to the fullest extent possible.
  • By working in and with the communities we serve – so as to enrich community life and be a platform for dialogue and deliberation on the key issues of the day.

Thus a quality that has always been part of our DNA, this tendency to engage – to be more a Public Square and less an Ivory Tower – has become our guiding light.  

And while faculty and students have started to give me a hard time for working the word “engage” into my speeches on every possible occasion, I’m not the least apologetic. They’ve heard it. They get it.

Now, in the next 10 or 15 minutes, I’d like to do two things. First, I’d like to describe in slightly greater detail the nature of SFU’s community engagement – beginning with the unique way in which we have used our physical infrastructure to revive, transform or actually create community around our three campuses.

And then I would like to say something briefly about the way we regard education – and especially post-secondary education – in Canada.

You are an important audience for both of these messages.  You’re important, firstly, because we at SFU cannot effectively reach out to the community if no one is reaching back.  Any meaningful engagement strategy must necessarily be two-way.

And you’re important because – and here you’ll have to excuse me for using the word once more – you are already engaged.  As the pollsters – and polling clerks – can attest, the people in this room vote.  

You exercise your considerable influence.  You let your voices be heard, not just in righteous conversations in coffee shops, but at the ballot box and in all the other formal venues where important social decisions are made. I dare say that none of you would be in this room today, or in the Probus Club at all, if that were not true.

So, let’s first go to SFU’s record of community transformation.  It began in 1989, when SFU made what was then regarded as a bold move to open a downtown campus at Harbour Centre, in the old Sears Tower.

This was a wonderful and strategic decision on several counts.  First, SFU’s original campus on Burnaby Mountain was, at the time, something of an intellectual citadel.  The built form, designed by Arthur Erickson and Geoff Massey, is beautiful and functional and the setting is exquisite.  But, for downtown businesspeople and other potential continuing education students, it’s not exactly accessible.

So, given that it wasn’t considered practical to bring the community to the mountain, we brought some of the best of SFU directly to the community.  In the process, we also gave new purpose to office space in a part of town that was, at the time, in relative decline.

We followed in the next 20 years reviving a number of other neglected heritage buildings. In 2001, we opened the Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue, in the former Toronto Dominion Bank building across Hastings Street from Harbour Centre.

In 2005, we added the Segal Graduate School of Business in the former Bank of Montreal Building at Granville and Pender.

In 2010, we opened the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts as part of the Woodward’s redevelopment, also on Hastings.

And, with the Bill Reid Foundation’s 2011 donation of its collection of Northwest Coast Art, we now enjoy a very public presence in the Bill Reid Gallery at 639 Hornby.

In total, that gives us over 380,000 square feet of space, making us, by far, the largest post-secondary presence in downtown Vancouver.

In those spaces, we offer undergraduate courses through 28 different departments, as well as 18 graduate-level programs, to nearly 4,000 full-time students.

If you count our non-credit offerings, the number of courses offered in our downtown facilities rises to 571, satisfying the demand of 7,500 students – of all ages.

Tallying the meetings, conferences, dialogues, lectures and performances, we host 9,000 events in the average year.

Clearly, this has added a huge amount of physical value and intellectual energy to the neighbourhood.  The mere presence of all those people, and the economic, social and cultural activity they generate, has been critical to a downtown core that was hollowing out as the central commercial district migrated toward Robson Street.

Instead of a neighbourhood in neglect, SFU’s downtown precinct is now what the Vancouver Sun describes as “the intellectual heart of the city.”

We have likewise used our capacities to engage and transform Surrey. Again we moved into a neighbourhood that was declining.  In a place that used to be known as Whalley was a shopping mall where no one shopped and a SkyTrain station where few people stopped.

In 2006, we opened our doors in a stunning new space that we share with a commercial tower and a much revived shopping center. Notwithstanding its location in the region’s second-largest city, the building, designed by the incomparable Bing Thom, is an increasingly famous example of what has become known in architectural and planning circles as “Vancouverism.”

The renowned architect, author and professor, Witold Rybczynski, profiled it in a photo essay in Slate, the online magazine, pointing to the mixed-use structure as a model for meeting “the challenge of the coming decade.”

This he identified as “making the suburbs more urban; that is, making them denser and creating active, concentrated, walkable town centers.”

The campus has also served as a catalyst for the redevelopment in what is now known as Surrey City Centre. There are a series of new office buildings, a new Surrey Central Library, a new Surrey City Hall due to open in December and, within the next few years, a 50-story hotel and residential tower.

Now, earlier I said that we had decided in the late ‘80s that it wasn’t considered practical to bring the community to the mountain.  By the mid-‘90s, we determined that was no longer the case.

SFU had originally been endowed with a significant amount of real estate, a 385-hectare parcel on which we were expected to develop vast tracts of suburban housing, the proceeds from which would support the education and research missions of the university.

SFU decided in 1995 that it was time to develop that land, but rejected the notion of spreading houses all over the mountain.  Instead, we donated 320 hectares on the slopes to the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area in exchange for the right to concentrate an anticipated 4,500 residential units on the remaining 65 hectares on top of the mountain adjacent to the university.

This development – called UniverCity – was commissioned from the outset to be a model sustainable community.  It also was intended to complement the function of our Burnaby campus, as it certainly has.

A campus that was once a weekend wasteland now boasts a High Street on which students, staff and faculty mingle with local residents and can dine, shop for food, and access a host of services.

There is an elementary school that was built to LEED Gold standards, and a brand new childcare centre that is on track to be certified as Canada’s first Living Building.  This is a structure that generates more energy and harvests more rainwater than it uses, is free of toxins, and is built of materials sourced within 500 kilometres.

Jason McLennan, the author of the Living Building Challenge, has called it “the greenest childcare on the planet.”  Perhaps as impressive is the fact that it was built for 18 per cent less than the market price of an equivalent conventional structure.

This is important when it comes to discussing the value of “sustainability.”  Despite what you sometimes see in promotional material, sustainable doesn’t mean “pretty good” or “greener than the other guy.”

Rather it refers to something that can prevail, environmentally and economically, in perpetuity – a goal that we have arguably reached with the childcare centre, and that our development agency, SFU Community Trust, continues to pursue with the entire community.

We also set the bar high in suggesting that this would be a “model” community, which means that its successes could be replicated.

And it’s gratifying to see that others are noticing. UniverCity has received 18 planning and environmental awards in the past six years.

There have been two other huge benefits from the university’s perspective. First, the development of UniverCity has so far contributed more than $30 million to SFU’s endowment, helping to ensure that the pursuit of excellence in education and research is also sustainable.

Second, where there was once little more than a series of sparsely populated parking lots, there is now a community of more than 3,600 people and a high street with shops and services for them and for the faculty staff and students of SFU.

Nearly half of the people who live in UniverCity are directly associated with the university – as faculty, staff or students – while the other half benefit from their proximity to university services and facilities

So, now you have heard something about the quality and impact of SFU’s physical engagement.  The scope of our community engagement, however, is far more extensive.

For example, you might have seen the news coverage or attended some of the events last week in SFU Public Square’s annual Community Summit.

This initiative is a direct product of our “engaged university” Vision, in which we resolved to be “BC’s public square for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues” – to be “the institution to which the community looks for education, discussion and solutions.”

That’s a year-round commitment to use our human and physical resources to accommodate and facilitate the important and sometimes difficult conversations that are critical to the successful functioning of a civil democracy. Once a year, we also host a Community Summit, drawing thousands of citizens together in a series of events and community conversations.

Our inaugural Summit last year focused on issues of isolation and disconnection in Metro Vancouver.  This year’s Summit, based on the theme “Charting BC’s Economic Future,” explored the possibility of British Columbians uniting around a common economic strategy aimed at promoting prosperity, equity and sustainability.

I’ve also said something about the breadth and scope of our research and you saw a couple of examples in the video.

And I could never say enough about our commitment to engaging students – and to ensuring that students themselves are engaged with their communities.

With those students in mind, it will be my pleasure this week to preside at our fall Convocation – to celebrate the culmination of a rich educational experience for a whole new cadre of SFU graduates and to watch while they count how many times I say the word “engage.”

In all seriousness, this is one of my favourite duties.  The students are always inspiring.  They embody the promise of youth – and more so because they have had the benefit of an education, the likes of which is available only to a tiny percentage of earth’s seven billion inhabitants. They join a cohort of 22 per cent of Canadians who have earned a university degree.

It’s an incredible blessing and one that we cannot afford take for granted.  Yet there appears to be an increasing number of commentators who are prepared to denigrate or trivialize its value.

They suggest that we Canadians are too smart for our own good – that we are overly educated. They imply that jobs go vacant because too many baristas and gym rats waste their time in university, when they should have concentrated on trades training, or perhaps just started earlier up the minimum wage ladder.

The evidence suggests otherwise. Canada’s population certainly enjoys a high level of education by international standards. The Globe and Mail reported earlier this year that 57 per cent of people 25 to 34 have a post-secondary credential. Other estimates, such as a Canadian Council on Learning’s 2009 study, put the level at 60 per cent among people 25 to 64.

It could be seen as an embarrassment of riches, but for two things:

First, the statistics are skewed by a high percentage of college-level accreditations. Our percentage of university graduates is a much less-impressive – 15th, well behind our principal trading partner, the U.S.

Second, every Canadian labour market survey from the past five years forecasts that, by 2020, a much higher percentage of new jobs will require post-secondary education. In British Columbia, the Labour Market Outlook pegs the level at 78 per cent.

More than 42 per cent of those jobs will require a college or trade certificate, so we need to be investing in these areas.  Another 35 per cent will require an undergraduate or graduate level university degree. Which means we need more, not fewer university spaces – just to supply workers needed to fill anticipated job vacancies.

And that’s without accounting for the academic brilliance, technological creativity, managerial excellence and entrepreneurial ingenuity that Canada requires to spur innovation and to stay economically competitive in an increasingly well-educated world.

There is no question in my mind of the capacity-building potential of a university education. In a world where jobs are evolving as quickly as iPhone upgrades, effective, employable workers need to be adaptable workers.  They need to be able to conduct research, to think critically, to write effectively, to analyze problems, and to have a propensity to learn.

They also require civic literacy, global awareness, an understanding of social behaviour and human diversity; and an appreciation of the natural world.  Happily, these competencies and capabilities are transferable.  They foster flexibility and agility in the workplace and job market.  And they contribute to enhanced citizenship.

The traditional foundation for such skills was a “liberal arts” education – one in which students canvas a broad range of courses in the hope that they can pull the components together into a well-rounded understanding.

That’s a kind of education that has always been available at SFU – and continues to be available today, albeit in an enriched and, dare I say it, “engaged” form.

Our experiential learning programs enable students in more than one-third of all courses to learn by doing, and to reflect upon their hands-on experience in a way that empowers them to apply theoretical knowledge to practical endeavours, inside and outside the classroom.

The wide array of innovations and options – reflecting the diverse needs of our students – include co-op placements and field courses that allow students to work and study in diverse settings and countries.

We have a Venture Connection program that enables undergraduate students to develop business aptitudes and opportunities.

The Semester in Dialogue is a cohort-based program that connects students with community leaders, creating teams that explore pressing social, economic and environmental issues.

And our undergraduate research awards fund students to spend a semester working on high-end university research of the kind that can expand the scope of human knowledge.

SFU’s Vision, as I noted at the outset, challenges the university community to “equip students with the knowledge, skills, and experiences that prepare them for life in an ever-changing and challenging world.”  We take this mission seriously.

For those of you who didn’t get to come to SFU, or whose children have recently made an alternative decision, I would say that other universities also take these matters seriously. (Well, almost as seriously.)  

And students across all institutions reap the benefit, in financial as well as human terms.

According to information released by Statistics Canada last month, the average salary for university graduates working full-time in 2010 was $80,500 a year. College and trades graduates earned more than $25,000 less with an average salary of $54,000, while high school graduates came in at just $46,000.

But while all university education is good; some is better than others.  So I hope you will forgive me for suggesting, if you still have children or grandchildren coming into the post-secondary system, that you direct them to SFU.  I promise they will find us very engaging.

More generally, I urge you to use your influence to speak up for advanced education at every level – and, as well, to support public and private-sector financing of university research.

We are, as you know, in a highly competitive world – one in which lower skilled jobs are constantly disappearing or being exported … and in which the value of resources can quickly be outstripped by the human capacity to innovate or add value.  

I hope you will join me in advocating the need on the part of provincial and national governments to build British Columbians’ human capacities through considered – and substantial – investments in advanced education and research.

I should say that, if you accept the need to encourage this support and investment, you also should know about SFU’s 50th Anniversary campaign.  It’s called the Power of Engagement, and our goal is to raise $250 million by our birthday in 2015.  I’d be VERY willing to make time for any and everyone who would like to assist us in meeting that target.

But whether you bring your chequebook or not – whether you’re in downtown Vancouver, or on Burnaby Mountain, or at Surrey City Center – I hope that you will pay SFU a visit. There is much more to hear and see than I could begin to tell you about today.

After this talk, it won’t surprise you to learn that we’d be delighted if you wished to engage.