SFU: An Engaged University on Top of the World

May 27, 2020

Presentation to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

To view the recording of the presentation, please visit:

Simon Fraser University has long valued its relationship with the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade and I’m pleased to participate in this virtual alternative to normal Board programming.

I am also grateful, in my last presentation as president, to be given the opportunity to review SFU’s development over the past decade as Canada’s Engaged University.

It’s been an exciting period, and one that has gained global recognition for the university.

Just this spring, Times Higher Education ranked SFU amongst the top 20 universities worldwide for our societal impact in meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – and #1 for our impact on Sustainable Cities and Communities.

This is wonderful testament to efforts of so many, and fulfilment of the potential created when SFU was founded 55 years ago.

The university was built in a way that would likely be impossible today. With only two years from conception to completion, SFU welcomed its first students in 1965.

Well known for its modernist architecture, the academic upstart soon gained notice for the activism of its students and its faculty – reflecting, even then, a university community that wished to be relevant and socially engaged ... some called it “radical.”

I was drawn to SFU in 2010 because I saw an institution uniquely committed to the communities it serves – not just in its physical connections, but also in its educational programs, its research activities and its public outreach.

SFU was offering students a wide range of experiential and community-based learning opportunities.

Many faculty members were engaged in applied and socially relevant research.

And, across SFU, programs and people were enriching communities in unique and meaningful ways. 

Leveraging these strengths, we launched a planning process that culminated, in 2012, with a strategic vision calling for SFU to be Canada’s “Engaged University defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research and far-reaching community engagement.”

Over the past eight years, that vision of engagement has informed every aspect of our operation, not just in relation to education, research and public programming … but also in the way we develop and use our land … in how we manage our financial resources … and in how we nurture and maintain relationships with stakeholders and communities.

It begins with helping our students access the knowledge, skills and experiences they need to achieve their dreams and reach their potential.

We dramatically increased community-based learning through co-op education and programs such as:

Semester in Dialogue;

Change Lab;

CityStudio Vancouver; and

Surrey CityLab.

We added programming in socially relevant areas such as environmental stewardship, Indigenous business, Big Data and Sustainable Energy Engineering.

And we made entrepreneurship training available to students across all disciplines.

In research, we developed a university-wide Innovation Strategy that supports research mobilization, business development and social innovation.

We became a national leader in advanced research computing and in the responsible use of Big Data.

And we launched a Community Engaged Research initiative to support the social, economic and environmental well-being of BC communities.

At the same time, we made institution-wide commitments to advance Aboriginal reconciliation and to model environmental sustainability in all that we do.

In addition to infusing greater community engagement into our educational programs and research activities, we have also extended our physical footprint in the communities we serve.

SFU is now by far the largest post-secondary presence in downtown Vancouver, with nine locations – including five we added in the past decade:

The Goldcorp Centre for the Arts;

The Bill Reid Gallery;

SFU VentureLabs (B.C.’s leading business accelerator);

the Charles Chang Innovation Centre; and, most recently

a Community Programming and Research Hub in the old police headquarters building at 312 Main Street.

In Surrey, we created a new Sustainable Energy Engineering program – the first of its kind in Western Canada – in a state-of-the-art building designed by the late, great architect, Bing Thom.

And SFU Surrey will soon be home to a new Quantum Algorithms Institute, positioning B.C. as a leader in quantum computing technology.

On Burnaby Mountain, we’re about to open a stunning new Student Union Building and a new stadium, thanks to funding support from our engaged students.

In addition, construction has begun on 850 units of housing for undergraduates, and 90 units for graduate students and students with families; 

We’ve secured funding for a new Art Museum; and

Plans are underway for a First Peoples Gathering House.

We have also greatly expanded programming through community engagement centres in Vancouver and Surrey;

a revitalized Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue; and

SFU Public Square – a signature initiative launched in 2012 to reflect our “engaged university” vision.

We have embraced new community partnerships, such as those we enjoy with Vancouver's Indian Summer Festival;

the Surrey Fusion Festival; and

the Burnaby Festival of Learning.

While this focus on engagement increased our societal impact and helped set us apart amongst research universities, it also buttressed our core teaching and research mission.

Indeed, over the past decade, our annual research income has grown faster than any other Canadian university to $161 million; Re$earch Infosource ranks us top amongst comprehensive universities for our research impact; and ...

… Maclean’s has rated SFU Canada’s leading “comprehensive university” for 9 of the past 10 years.

The focus on engagement – so beneficial to communities – has also brought enormous benefits to the university.

Students who enjoy co-op and other community learning opportunities are better informed and equipped for their careers – in business, government or civil society.

Our researchers’ work is more relevant, responsive and better informed because of their close community connections.

And SFU has gained domestic support, and international acclaim, for demonstrating how a major research university can put all of its resources to work for the communities its serves.

There is no better evidence than the Times Higher Education impact rankings that I mentioned earlier.

These rankings placed SFU 19th in the world for our societal impact in meeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Of 766 universities around the globe, we were ranked 9th for our impact on Climate Action;

7th for our impact on Aquatic Ecosystems;

4th for our impact on Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions; and

first in the world for our impact on Sustainable Cities and Communities.

Our commitment to engagement, and its impact, have been further demonstrated in the past few months in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Internally, we reorganized our entire education program in little more than a week, and prioritized research that is crucial to addressing the coronavirus and its consequences.

Consider the work of Drs. Peter Unrau and Lena Dolgosheina who are using SFU-invented RNA imaging technology to develop coronavirus testing kits;

Or Dr. Andy Hoffer whose company has received FDA approval for an innovation that helps wean COVID-19 patients from ventilators.

At a policy level, consider Dr. Caroline Colijn, who has been appointed to the federal government’s COVID-19 expert panel;

Or Dr. Kelley Lee, who oversees a project that supports global coordination of the COVID-19 outbreak response;

Or Dr. Julia Smith, who is co-leading an international research team to identify gender-related effects of the virus.

We’ve also launched SFU CAN (COVID Action Now), a university-wide initiative to harness our resources to address community needs.

Examples include:

  • Identifying and donating personal protective equipment to hospitals and health care workers;
  • Producing hand sanitizer at a Surrey Science Lab;
  • Providing online public programming to inform and connect citizens;
  • Helping municipalities protect vulnerable populations; First Nations address emergency needs; and communities develop economic recovery strategies.

So while we may still display the energy and enthusiasm of an upstart, SFU on the local, national and global stage, has well and truly arrived.


What’s next for SFU? 

For specifics, you’ll need to turn to my able successor, our Vice President, Research and International Joy Johnson, who will assume the presidency in September.

However, I have no doubt that, in the coming decade, our impact will continue to grow.

In Surrey … where we have been the catalyst for the development of Surrey City Centre …

In Vancouver … where we have been called the intellectual heart of the city…

And atop Burnaby Mountain … where our original campus will soon, I hope, be linked to the broader community by this country’s first urban transit gondola.

So, in the years ahead, the people of Metro Vancouver can look forward to a continuing relationship with an even more remarkable, transformative and, yes, engaged Simon Fraser University.