The Power of Engagement: Leveraging the best of SFU for the next 50 years

September 07, 2013

Op-Ed submitted to the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

What price excellence? And in what way can excellence best be achieved?

These are pressing questions for any university, and especially for public institutions that are both indebted and accountable to the taxpayer for the quality and impact of their programs.

Simon Fraser University has thought long and hard about the second question. In an effort to identify what sets us apart from other institutions – to be sure that we are pursuing excellence in the best possible way – SFU recently conducted one of the most extensive community consultations ever undertaken by a Canadian university.

We listened.  And what we heard was reassuring.  People told us they valued our adventurous spirit, our readiness to embrace bold initiatives and, most especially, our willingness to engage, internally with our students and externally with the communities we serve.

On that basis, we embraced a vision to be Canada’s “engaged university defined by its  dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research, and far-reaching community engagement.”

Looking back, one can see how that vision builds upon SFU’s nearly 50-year history of educational innovation and research activity – and with our very tangible presence in our three home communities: SFU’s original campus in Burnaby; our campus in downtown Vancouver which this newspaper has called “the intellectual heart of the city;” and our newest campus which has contributed so much to a suburban transformation in Surrey City Centre.

Any review of SFU’s past and present achievements must also credit the extraordinary contributions of philanthropy. For five decades, SFU donors have opened doors to education and opportunity for many of our most gifted and engaged students. They have enabled our researchers to use their knowledge and talents to broaden human understanding and to address some of the major social, economic and environmental issues of the day.  And those donors have helped us to create an extraordinary community legacy with facilities such as the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, the Segal Graduate School of Business, and the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.  As with our remarkable Surrey campus, these have revitalized neighbourhoods and become important venues for community development and engagement.

With this history in mind, and a new vision before us, we are now launching a fundraising campaign to set our course for the next 50 years. We’re calling it “The Power of Engagement” and we are looking to raise $250 million – a down payment on another half century of excellence – in time for our 50th anniversary in 2015.

We plan to dedicate $100 million to engage students. This will fund scholarships, bursaries and awards that will improve access and support those with the greatest potential. It will also support programs that go beyond the everyday commitment to provide knowledge, critical thinking abilities and research aptitudes, offering experiential learning opportunities that impart the civic understanding and workplace skills that prepare today’s students to be tomorrow’s engaged citizens.

An example is SFU’s Semester in Dialogue. This full-time, interdisciplinary program equips students to work together – and with community thought leaders – on pressing public issues like community health, energy management, and food security.

We will seek another $100 million for engaging research.  An illustration is the Hakai Network for Coastal Peoples, Ecosystems and Management, an inter-disciplinary research initiative on B.C.’s Central Coast. Based on agreements between SFU, the Tula Foundation and local First Nations, the Hakai Network enables SFU faculty, students and post-doctoral researchers to collaborate with First Nations and others on research aimed at sustaining the environment and economy of this remarkable area.

The final $50 million will support SFU’s community engagement initiatives in a multitude of areas. An example here is our SFU Woodward’s cultural programs.  These programs last year attracted over 50,000 patrons to more than 100 events – such as plays, films, exhibitions, dance performances and cultural festivals – as well as to educational opportunities ranging from a performing arts program for children to a community lecture series on cultural democracy.

These are just a few expressions of The Power of Engagement – and of SFU’s capacities as Canada’s most community-engaged research university to contribute to the well-being of current and future generations. We have 30,000 engaged students. We have 6,500 engaged researchers. We are extensively and productively engaged with communities near and far.

We need only your engagement to set SFU on course for an extraordinary second half-century.