Weaving the Academy into the Fabric of Community: The Simon Fraser University Experience

November 20, 2013

Article included in Conference Proceedings
Cities Learning Together - Local Communities in the Sustainable and Healthy Learning City
Hosted by the Hong Kong Institute of Education

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

It is a perpetual challenge in the post-secondary world to focus upon and pursue particular areas of excellence in which it is possible to make a transformative contribution. Few are the institutions with sufficient financial and human resources to have a far-reaching impact in every discipline; the rest face hard choices about where to concentrate effort. Yet when it comes to institutional interaction with learning cities – when it comes to university-community engagement – the need to choose where (and where not) to focus attention may be less relevant. In that context, engagement may be conceived not as a discrete pursuit, but rather as an approach that can inform every aspect of how a university operates, educates and serves its students and its communities, both near and far.

That was the conclusion reached at Simon Fraser University (SFU), a research intensive university with three campuses in the Metro Vancouver region of British Columbia, Canada. With 30,000 students, 6,500 faculty and staff, and 120,000 alumni, SFU is consistently ranked in national surveys amongst the best comprehensive universities in Canada, and was listed third in North America in the most recent QS global ranking of the best universities under 50 years of age.

Founded in 1965, SFU was sited in the ivory tower tradition of the day atop an undeveloped mountain in the Metro Vancouver suburb of Burnaby. Yet it was the activist spirit of the 1960s more than the physical location of its first campus that ultimately shaped SFU’s character. From the earliest days, the university’s faculty and students were irrepressible, bringing their energy and intelligence to bear on issues across the region. SFU was also outward looking institutionally, establishing new campuses in downtown Vancouver and in the developing heart of the region’s secondlargest and fastest-growing city, Surrey.

In 2010, SFU launched a process called “envision>SFU” – one of the most extensive internal and external consultations ever held by a Canadian university. The public response was strong and enthusiastic. People said that they appreciated SFU for its adventurous spirit and its willingness to embrace bold initiatives. They valued the quality and especially the mobility of SFU’s research and they liked its continuing commitment to undergraduate teaching and learning. Mostly, it seemed, they cherished SFU’s connection to the communities it serves; they liked its sense of engagement.

That reaction helped to define SFU’s resulting Strategic Vision and to inform SFU’s approach to – and relationship with – the “learning cities” with which the institution is associated. That Vision (explicated in an animated video available here), commits SFU to be “the leading engaged university, defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research, and far-reaching community engagement.” Put another way, SFU will not limit its engagement to discrete issues such as the environment, public health, or technology transfer. It will interact not solely with governments, NGOs and those in the private sector. Rather, it is committed to marshalling all of its resources – from the learning energy of its students to the research creativity of its faculty to the physical impact of its institutional infrastructure – for the betterment of the local communities in which it has campuses and the communities around the world with which it has established close relationships. SFU is determined to weave itself into the fabric of these communities, not as an exercise in altruism, but in the belief that this engagement also pays enormous dividends for students, faculty and staff – and for the university itself.

Some examples of this engagement are typical. For example, SFU has one of the most comprehensive co-operative education programs amongst Canadian universities, and more generally is a leader in providing students with experiential learning opportunities. More than one-third of all undergraduate courses have an experiential learning component. Some of these are deeply immersive and highly engaging. SFU’s Semester in Dialogue, for example, is a full-time, interdisciplinary program in which students help develop a topic of study and then work together – and with community thought leaders – not only to enhance their own understanding of the issue, but also to promote discussion and policy advancement in the community. In one variant of this program, SFU students work with students from five other post-secondary institutions and with the City of Vancouver on projects to implement Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan.

On the research front, while maintaining its commitment to basic research, SFU has set its sights on becoming “a world leader in knowledge mobilization.” In this regard, SFU researchers are already involved in an extensive array of research activities to enhance the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of local communities. These range from initiatives aimed at improving the quality of healthcare and housing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, one of Canada’s poorest urban neighbourhoods, to supporting the development of an innovation economy in Surrey, one of the country’s fastest growing suburban municipalities.

The style and scope of SFU’s institutional, physical engagement is somewhat unique. The university has been able to use its resources to revitalize or transform existing communities in two locations and to develop a model green and sustainable new community in a third.

Having started on a geographically isolated campus, SFU once feared that there would always be a problem bringing the community to the mountain. So in 1989 it made its first effort to bring the mountain to the community – SFU took over a former Vancouver department store; in one gesture establishing a downtown campus and beginning to revitalize a part of the city that was in serious danger of social decline. In the years since and in the same downtown area, the university has acquired and repurposed two significant heritage structures, and built a centre for the arts on an iconic heritage site. In addition to making the act of engagement easier – for students, faculty and staff – these developments have contributed to the creation of an educational and arts precinct that has revived a neighbourhood at risk and established SFU, in the words of Vancouver’s major newspaper, as the “intellectual heart of the city.”

In its second major physical outreach program, SFU in 2002 established a third campus on the site of an under-utilized shopping mall in the burgeoning city of Surrey, a community growing so fast that it is expected soon to overtake Vancouver as the largest in the region. This particular part of Surrey was another neighbourhood at serious risk of social deterioration. Yet the campus, the revived shopping mall and an accompanying office building has since become the model for an internationally acclaimed form of suburban redevelopment. American architect and writer Witold Rybczynski recently featured the campus in a Slate magazine story on new urbanism. Referring to the surprising combination of a university and a shopping mall, he talked about its catalysing influence, and how it served as a means for meeting “the challenge of the coming decade,” which he identified as “making the suburbs more urban; that is, making them denser and creating active, concentrated, walkable town centers.”

As envisioned from the outset, this mixed-use campus facility has spurred development and attracted neighbours, including a public health authority, regional offices of leading companies and more than 20 new residential towers. It will soon be joined by Surrey’s new City Hall, which itself is rising next to a stunning new Surrey Library, designed by Bing Thom, the same architect who conceived the SFU campus. The library also serves as home to the university’s new community engagement centre, which will coordinate and support a growing number of collaborative projects in the Surrey community.

SFU’s contributions to community revitalization in Vancouver and Surrey were recognized in 2009 with a gold award for public-sector leadership from the Institute of Public Administration of Canada and financial services company Deloitte. “In both cases,” proclaimed the citation, “SFU’s arrival has 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.”

The third example – of greenfield sustainable development – is unfolding on Burnaby Mountain adjacent the original campus. In the late 1990s, the university decided that there was, after all, a means by which it could bring the community to the mountain – by developing land that had been set aside for SFU’s endowment. Appropriate to endowment-related development, this was to be a profit-making enterprise. But SFU also committed to building an holistic and sustainable community, one that could serve as an example to others seeking to develop or improve their communities without inflicting unnecessary ecological damage. The resulting neighbourhood – known as UniverCity – has earned a host of awards for sustainable planning and practice, including notice from HRH Prince Charles’s Prince’s Foundation for Building Community. Among its achievements to date is a childcare centre with a net-zero environmental footprint – a building that generates more energy and captures or recycles more water than its inhabitants use, and was built and will be operated with non-toxic components sourced within a 500-kilometre radius. Perhaps as impressive is the fact that it was built for 15 per cent less than the market price for an equivalent conventional structure. And, in a further expression of engagement, SFU’s education faculty has a continuing research relationship with the centre and its programs.

This again speaks to the integrated nature of the SFU approach. There is no engagement department or task force. There are no discrete units dedicated to one-off engagement exercises. Rather, the university has sought to connect itself widely and consistently in relationships that are truly reciprocal. For instance, it committed in its Vision to be “BC’s public square for enlightenment and dialogue on key public issues, and (to) be known as the institution to which the community looks for education, discussion and solutions.” To this end, SFU has launched an annual SFU Public Square community summit on issues of pressing social concern. (The first was on civic
disconnection and social isolation). It also has redoubled its efforts throughout the year to make its resources – human and physical – available to the community, both to ensure that there are safe and open venues for public dialogue, and to guide, mediate or otherwise contribute to the success and quality of those community conversations.

At no point in this process has the commitment to engagement distracted from SFU’s primary academic mission. On the contrary, it has in every instance been viewed as a complementary commitment that adds value to the university’s educational and research missions.

The knowledge and aptitudes that SFU students acquire in the classroom, labs and library are enriched and extended by the real-life experiences and hands-on skills they acquire through community-based learning. As a consequence, they gain greater insight into their capabilities and interests, as well as a heightened sense of civic awareness and social responsibility. This level of engagement reflects the Vision’s goal of equipping SFU students “with the knowledge, skills, and experiences that prepare them for life in an ever-changing and challenging world,” while encouraging them to make the largest social contribution during schooling and beyond.

Similarly, the university’s commitment to engaged research and knowledge mobilization sets up a dynamic process that challenges SFU’s researchers to work collaboratively with others to address the most pressing issues of the day. SFU faculty members are inspired and rewarded by the opportunity to work in partnership with communities and to address issues that attract real interest and have immediate impact in the world around them.

We stand at a critical juncture: humankind has more knowledge and greater technological capacity than ever; yet we face some of the most daunting economic, social and environmental challenges of our history. In this circumstance, there is a huge and critical role for universities to play in forging stronger, healthier and more  sustainable societies. For this reason, SFU has resolved that its commitments and contributions to the development of “learning cities” should be complete and wholehearted. By the same token, it is our hope that the Vision we have crafted of an “engaged university” might in future be seen less as an anomaly to be noted and observed, and more as a prototype to be adapted and improved upon.

Article included in Conference Proceedings (page 234-237) - Cities Learning Together - Local Communities in the Sustainable and Healthy Learning City, Hosted by the Hong Kong Institute of Education (PDF of Full Conference Proceedings available here - 6MB)
November 18-20, 2013