Engaging with the Impact of COVID-19 at SFU

April 13, 2020

Article published in Rethinking Higher Ed

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Like other universities across Canada, we at SFU have transformed our institution in a way that, a month ago, I might have thought impossible. We have moved our entire educational program from the classroom to the cloud and other platforms. Instructors from every discipline have embraced teaching techniques and technologies with which many were unfamiliar a few weeks ago. Working from their homes, they have mobilized to deliver their lessons remotely, enabling students to maintain their studies and access crucial supports, even as the world learns the difficult discipline of social distancing. Our students have responded with resilience and concern for one another. They have reached out and stayed connected, and as always, they have made us all very proud.

Much of what we have accomplished at SFU is similar to what other post-secondary institutions have done in this compressed period. What may distinguish us, however, is how we have benefited from our vision and its values. As Canada’s engaged university, we have directed our energies to developing new and better ways for engaging students, engaging research and engaging communities. Our commitment to these forms of engagement has served us well during this challenging time. Rather than seeking to be or do something different, we have been able to draw upon this commitment to engagement to motivate ourselves and mobilize our efforts.


As the crisis has unfolded, we have sought to maintain our high standard of support for students through new channels, expanding communication and, just as importantly, listening.  We have added resources where we know they are needed, particularly in housing, financial aid and mental health support. We have existing free 24/7 online and telephone access to professional counselling and support for all students, and we enhanced that service with courses in resilience, spiritual support, virtual meeting groups and meditation.

Also, knowing that members of our university communities would be looking for ways to demonstrate their support for our students, we launched a COVID-19 Student Urgent Response Fund, initially with our staff and faculty, and subsequently with our alumni and supporters. Funds raised go directly to help students suffering financial difficulties at this challenging time.


SFU researchers have stepped up in multiple ways to address the COVID-19 crisis. For example, Dr. Caroline Colijn, Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematics for Evolution, Infection and Public Health, has been appointed to the federal government’s COVID-19 expert panel, while Dr. Tania Bubela, Dean of Health Sciences, has joined the BC COVID-19 Strategic Research Advisory Committee. A team led by Drs. Lena Dolgosheina and Peter Unrau is using SFU-invented RNA imaging technology to develop advanced coronavirus testing kits. Dr. Kelley Lee leads a project that is supporting global coordination of the COVID-19 outbreak response. And health sciences researcher, Dr. Julia Smith, is co-leading an international research team to identify gender-related effects of the virus. We have worked with granting bodies and our own facilities and supports to ensure that this critical research can continue and indeed expand.

In addition, from the early days of this health crisis, we have focused on making our researchers’ knowledge and insights available to our local communities and to the world through mainstream and social media, as well as other means of communication. We have also been sure to share their work and perspectives with our students, staff and faculty. To this end, each day we share a story or video focused on one of our researchers, reminding the university community of the importance of our work and instilling a sense of pride and connection with one another.


Given our vision’s goal “to be Canada’s most community-engaged research university,” we have made it our mission to do everything we can at this time of crisis to support our communities. Within days of social distancing requirements being imposed, our community engagement programs and initiatives had mobilized and were seeking ways to do their work virtually.

For example, SFU Public Square has launched an initiative called “Community Engagement in a Time of Social Distancing,” which includes a set of tools to help people stay connected. The Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue has created “,” a resource for young Canadians that includes clear information and resources about all aspects of life during this crisis. Our SFU Woodward’s Cultural Unit is active on social media, and consistently posting links to online performances, archival videos, and COVID-19 support for artists of all genres.

In the next few days, we will launch a community recovery network, bridging the many resources and connections within SFU and further opening our doors to the broader community.

In my ten years as SFU president, I have never been prouder of this university or more grateful for the perseverance and goodwill of its students, faculty and staff. Our strength is in our engagement – with each other and with the communities we serve. By continuing to be committed, steadfast and kind, we are determined to show how an engaged university can support others while helping itself to emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.