President's Closing Remarks at C2UExpo 2017: For The Common Good

May 05, 2017

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

It is my privilege to offer closing remarks on a truly remarkable week.

From the Community Jam to the Walk The Talk, from the large group gatherings to the concurrent sessions, from the site visits to the Cultural Mash Up, this has been an amazing conference involving Indigenous knowledge, collaborative learning, shared discovery, artistic expression and social engagement.

While it’s always an honour to be a closing speaker, I can’t think of a conference in which I have been so personally invested.

I am sure you all know by now that Simon Fraser University has a very particular commitment to community engagement.

The very notion lies at the heart of our strategic vision – we aspire to be Canada’s most community-engaged research university for reasons both strategic and important.

For starters, close, concerted community engagement is good for universities.  

It’s good for students, who gain practical skills, civic understanding and the sense of efficacy that comes from applying academic knowledge in a community setting.

It’s good for faculty, who learn from communities even as they bring their expertise to bear on specific and often vital societal concerns.

It enables scholars to gain insight and understanding while making direct contributions to community betterment.

Community engagement also benefits the whole institution.

Some of you participated in the Community Jam at our Surrey campus.  And all of you, I’m sure, have seen evidence of the positive impacts that SFU has had in downtown Vancouver.

As we have connected with these communities – as we have used the whole range of our resources, human and physical, to add life, knowledge and energy to Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby – the people, businesses and organizations in those communities have reached back and given back. It’s made for extraordinary partnerships and collaborations.

A further impetus for our commitment to engagement is more altruistic, but also more urgent.

There has seldom been a time in history when communities have had a greater need for the direct, productive and supportive engagement of post-secondary institutions.

We are all well-aware of the long list of social, environmental and political challenges currently facing the world.  From income inequality to climate change to demagoguery, there is no shortage of destabilizing influences.

There is, however, a shortage of reliable institutions to which communities can look for help in confronting these issues.

The public sector is under attack and, in many places, in retreat. Around the world, there are whole political movements dedicated to undermining the capacity and legitimacy of governments.

And, in an age of rapid technological change and globalization, the social infrastructure of many communities is being disrupted and dismantled. 

Companies that helped to build and sustain communities have become disconnected from the cities and towns they once supported – as they mechanize and outsource their work, and diversify their operations, to become more globally competitive and to satisfy the financial demands of their shareholders.

The mainstream media, which once held itself out as a platform for public discourse, is under siege – struggling to survive in an internet age in which there is a surfeit of information, but a scarcity of investigative reporting and thoughtful analysis.

In the face of these trends, where can communities turn for sustenance and strength?

The best hope lies with institutions that combine long-standing community connections with enduring capacities to nurture and support community development – so-called anchor institutions. 

No institutions are better equipped or more appropriately resourced to play this role than colleges and universities.

At a time when too many political figures and media manipulators have abandoned factual discourse, colleges and universities remain committed to verifiable knowledge and evidence-based solutions.

As such, we are uniquely well equipped to support informed and constructive citizen dialogue, and to help communities to develop policies and initiatives that respond to their needs.

And, at a time when communities struggle to address myriad social, economic and environmental challenges, colleges and universities have resources and capacities that can help to strengthen their social infrastructure, and people who can support them in developing informed and effective solutions.

To fulfil their promise as anchor institutions, however, colleges and universities must reach beyond our core roles as educational and research institutions.

We must conceive ourselves more broadly as social enterprises with mandates to support community betterment in all its forms.      

This means doing more to support our students, faculty and staff to engage with the communities we serve, while harnessing all of our institutional capacities to assist those communities to develop and thrive.

There is no better evidence of the benefits of this approach than the many examples provided at this conference.

In the past five days, you have shared an abundance of inspiring object lessons showing the value of campus-community engagement.

This conference itself has been a testament to that same value. This gathering has not only been a forum for discussing campus-community engagement; it has also been a venue for practicing it.

You have demonstrated the power of engagement even as you have examined it.

So, to those who launched CUExpo in 2003, to those who have sustained it over the past 14 years, and to those who worked so hard to plan and organize this fabulous week, please join me in saying: “Congratulations and thank you!”

And to you who have come here from near and far, let me say: “Thank you too for your energy and ideas!”

We have all benefited – campuses and communities – from your contributions and commitments.

Let us continue to build on this momentum. As this past week has shown, the opportunities are boundless for colleges and universities to embrace campus-community engagement:

  • to enrich the learning experiences of our students;
  • to increase the research impact of our faculty; and
  • to gain greater public recognition and support for all aspects of our mission.

The needs of our communities have never been greater for the contributions that colleges and universities have to offer:

  • to build social infrastructure;
  • to support Indigenous peoples;
  • to address social, economic and environmental challenges; and
  • to nurture public dialogue and democratic decision-making.    

Now is the time for all of us to draw upon the positive energy, the lessons learned and the connections made at this conference to build campus-community relationships, and to advance the role of colleges and universities as social enterprises and anchor institutions.

So, as we return to our campuses and communities, let us not just stay engaged.  Let us seek out new opportunities for engagement that extend and enlarge our societal contributions.  

There has never been a more pressing – or promising – time at which to work together For the Common Good.

Let us rise to that challenge.

And when we meet again at the next C2U Expo, we’ll have even more to celebrate.