Opinion: The new community builders: Universities, colleges and institutes are vital source of social infrastructure

May 25, 2018

Op-ed published in the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

In a world of globalized commerce and communications, but localized problems, where can we turn for the relationships and social structures that our communities need to thrive?

Communities were once bolstered by dominant domestic industries, anchor institutions that sewed strength into the fabric of society even as they sustained local economies. But globalization has displaced many such industries at the same time that civic networks have been disrupted and governments’ fiscal capacities have become ever-more strained.

So, as we grapple with issues like social isolation and income inequality – as we wrestle with the impacts of housing affordability and addiction – what institutions can we look to for support?

One powerful answer involves Canada’s diverse network of public universities, colleges and institutes. Post-secondary institutions are already recognized contributors to communities’ economic and social well-being through our education and research mandates. But there is more we can do – and mutual benefit to be gained in the process.

Simon Fraser University came to this realization organically and then strategically. Ours has always been an institution inclined to community betterment, with an activist faculty and a tendency to reach out with programming and resources.

That experience taught us that working with – and for – our community partners made us a better university. Students who engaged directly with communities received an enriched and more relevant education. Researchers gained greater purpose and gratification from addressing real-world issues. Even our physical investments – the building of transformative campuses in downtown Vancouver and Surrey – strengthened our overall ability to perform.

On that basis, in 2012, SFU made community engagement a focus of our strategic vision. Building on that experience, we recently joined with the McConnell Family Foundation to commission a study by researcher Coro Strandberg identifying all of the mechanisms that universities, institutes and colleges have at their disposal to strengthen communities.

Strandberg’s study pointed to obvious instruments within our education and research mandates. Think, for example, of SFU’s extensive community-based and service learning programs, such as Semester in Dialogue and Friends of Simon, in which students contribute to community betterment even as they gain valuable knowledge and skills. Think of the work done by our health researchers to address the opioid crisis or the role of our First Nations Language Centre to help preserve and revitalize Indigenous languages.

But Strandberg also identified a whole range of other instruments that post-secondary institutions can leverage to build social infrastructure. There are opportunities, for example, in the ways we use land and facilities; purchase goods and services; manage and invest funds; steward human resources; and nurture and maintain relationships.

SFU and the McConnell Foundation welcomed these insights, as have others in the post-secondary world. Last year, university presidents from across Canada came to Vancouver to discuss how this strategy can be implemented at their institutions, and follow-up forums have since been held across Canada.

Looking back, it’s clear that we and other institutions have already employed some of these additional mechanisms. For instance, SFU’s decision to use its land on Burnaby Mountain to develop a model sustainable community has resulted in affordable housing, an elementary school, childcare facilities and other social amenities.

In procurement, we have sought out Indigenous and other community-based suppliers that are likely to generate local employment and build capacity. As an investor, we allocate a significant portion of our endowment to sustainable investments. As a convenor, we host and provide facilities for important and sometimes difficult conversations on pressing community issues, through programs like SFU Public Square and our Centre for Dialogue.

Yet we have only begun to tap our full potential. In a coming address to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, I will argue that Canada’s public universities, colleges and institutes have an obligation, as well as an opportunity, to harness the instruments at our disposal to the greatest extent possible to benefit the communities we serve.

In addition to fulfilling our core educational and research mandates, we bear a responsibility as public institutions to exercise our full capacities as community builders, especially at a time when the needs are so great and the sources of social infrastructure in such short supply.

Andrew Petter will appear at the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade on May 30 for a presentation and conversation with The Honourable Janet Austin, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia.