Convocation Address, October 2017

October 06, 2020

Professor Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Madam Chancellor, honoured guests, members of the Board of Governors and Senate, faculty members, staff, and – most especially –  graduands, family and friends.

It is my privilege to preside at this culminating celebration of your education at Simon Fraser University.

You have earned this moment.  You have worked hard in your studies, deepened your knowledge, and broadened your horizons.

And, along the way, you have cultivated your gifts, honed your abilities, and gained many lifelong friends. 

Today marks a major milestone.  And you have every right to feel proud and excited.

At the same time, you can be forgiven for feeling a tad apprehensive. 

Having worked so hard, the world you are about to inherit might seem a bit battered around the edges.

South of the border, there has been a rise in nativism and a decline in political civility.

Growing tensions abroad and an opioid crisis at home have fueled anxieties and fears.

And the devastation caused by hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria is a disturbing portend of what our failure to address climate change might hold in store.

Yet, despite these developments, there is also cause for hope and optimism.

The Oslo Peace Institute reports that there have been fewer wars and fewer war deaths in the past 10 years than at any time in the past century.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker – who stood on this stage to receive an honorary degree a few years ago – has documented a steep decline in worldwide violence that he notes “may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”

Canadians enjoy the longest life expectancy ever … and we’ve seen a significant rise in educational attainment.

Major strides have been taken in advancing women’s equality and LGBTQ rights; and we have embarked upon a journey of truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

In these and other areas, while there is still much work to be done, things are moving in a positive direction.

But nothing makes me more hopeful than looking out at all of you.

I have witnessed the dedication, the excellence, the passion that you have brought to your time at SFU.  

And I have seen the commitments that you have made to yourselves and to each other. 

I am particularly reminded of the “We Are All SFU” event held earlier this year in Freedom Square following the announcement of the US travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

That event came about because students, faculty and staff were determined to stare down the darkness – to repudiate threats to human rights, freedom and international understanding.

And the response was inspiring:  So many of you turned out, with courage and conviction, to demonstrate your solidarity with those affected by the ban, and to show that you would not tolerate any erosion to their rights and freedoms.

The same spirit and determination was on display last month, when so many from SFU joined the Vancouver Walk for Reconciliation, an affirmation of our shared commitment to Canada’s Indigenous peoples. 

I would like to believe the activism and sense of purpose that motivated our community to take part in those events was nurtured here at SFU.

As Canada’s engaged university – and one whose vision is grounded in values of diversity, inclusion and mutual respect – SFU has assumed a special responsibility:

  •  to build bridges and strengthen civil society; 
  •  to promote evidence-based dialogue and deliberation on issues of public policy; and
  •  to support religious freedom, social equality and cross-cultural engagement.

It was deeply gratifying, therefore, to see how widely these values are held by our students, faculty and staff.

So here is my hope and my wish for you as you start on the next chapter of your lives. 

As you take from this university the knowledge, skills and capacities you need to achieve personal success, I urge you also to take with you commitments to social justice and engagement.

In the course of improving your own lives, spare some time and energy for improving the lives of others and making the world a better place.

You may well look to the future with measures of excitement and apprehension. There will be good times and bad.

Wherever you go, push towards the good.

Humans have greater capacity than ever to conquer challenges in the environment, the economy and society.

In these difficult tasks, embrace the role the world needs you to play, and never doubt your ability to make a difference.

As anthropologist Jane Goodall has observed: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference … you [just] have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”

Today, you join a community of 150,000 alumni around the world, remarkable people who are already engaged in making their lives and their communities better.

Together, your impact can be transformative.

So, step up … and stay in touch.

In the years to come, SFU will always be here for you … to answer questions and to help you continue your education whenever the need arises.

For now – to you and to the parents, partners, mentors and supporters who brought you to this moment – congratulations.

Today is for celebration. Tomorrow the opportunity to build a better world awaits. 

Good luck and good fortune in all that you do.