Message from the President: Community Report - What we've achieved and what lies ahead

August 28, 2023

For some, January 1 marks the start of a new year, a moment for reflection and future planning. For me, as I suspect for many of you, September will always feel like the start of a new year. As I enter my fourth year as president of one of the best universities in Canada and seek a second term, I’ve taken time to reflect on what we’ve achieved and what lies ahead, and I’d like to share my thoughts with you in my first annual Community Report. 

First and foremost, when I reflect on the year behind us and the year ahead of us, I am filled with gratitude to be part of the SFU community. The first memories that come to mind are moments when we’ve been together—Convocation, and the feeling of energy and electricity from students as they cross the stage, and meetings like Senate and the Board of Governors, as significant decision items are discussed and approved. But I also think about less formal moments in meetings and at events where I get to meet and truly connect with our incredible community of students, faculty and staff.

Though my role is not always easy, it is simple: as president, my job is to support the people of SFU as we make this an even better university. 

So what did we accomplish on this journey over the past year? Well...a whole lot. 

The year behind us

One of my major priorities has been to strengthen the academic mission at SFU. The executive team recognizes that our students, research and academic functions need to be centered in all that we do, and we are committed to continued work on strengthening the academic mission.

In collaboration with Senate and in the spirit of collegial governance, we made several changes in this area. We restructured the provost’s portfolio to provide more support and gave the provost decision-making authority related to SFU’s budget, ensuring that all activities at the university are viewed through the lens of how they will affect students and the academic mission. As a result of these changes, you can expect to see greater support for teaching innovation, enhanced student learning experiences and more streamlined, transparent administrative processes that support work within the faculties. We made these changes in anticipation of welcoming Dr. Dilson Etcheverry Rassier as our new provost and vice-president academic—Dilson has recently hit the ground running and I’m excited for our community to get to know him. 

The other accomplishment I’m most proud of from the past year is our launch of What’s Next: The SFU Strategy, a framework developed in consultation with our communities that will help all of us stay aligned and focused on shared priorities in the year ahead. In the few months since the strategy was approved, our community has rallied behind these priorities—thank you to everyone who has contributed. Here are some highlights of our collective work towards the priorities outlined in What’s Next.

Uphold Truth and Reconciliation

  • This year, we focused on building relationships with the First Nations upon whose territories SFU is located. Our work to Uphold Truth and Reconciliation must be done in partnership with Host Nations and I am glad to see progress in this area, including Indigenous naming, the renewal of our MOU with Squamish Nation and the signing of a protocol agreement with Tsleil-Waututh Nation. 
  • Construction began on the First Peoples’ Gathering House, a space long advocated for by Indigenous students, faculty and staff. The construction site is right outside my office, and every time I walk by it, I look forward to how this space will benefit Indigenous community members on the Burnaby campus.
  • We celebrated the opening of new Indigenous Student Centre spaces on the Burnaby and Surrey campuses, with work ongoing to open a space at the Vancouver campus.
  • Chris (Syeta’xtn) Lewis, director, Indigenous initiatives and Reconciliation, in consultation with Indigenous students, faculty, staff and Host Nations, has proposed an Indigenous governance structure for SFU. We are now working towards implementation of the structure to ensure that Indigenous perspectives and ways of being are represented in every aspect of our work at the university.

Engage in Global Challenges

  • SFU was once again ranked Canada’s #1 comprehensive university by Maclean’s. We were also honoured as the #1 university in the world by Times Higher Education for our work on sustainable cities and communities, and #5 in the world for our impact on climate action.
  • Five SFU researchers have been awarded as new and renewed Canada Research Chairs, allowing our researchers to make even more of an impact as they tackle top global challenges in health governance, Indigenous sovereignty and more.
  • This year, I took several trips to connect with post-secondary partners and alumni in Toronto, Singapore, Hong Kong and more. Through these trips, we furthered SFU’s international reputation, reconnected with alumni and had important conversations about how we can collaborate sector-wide to advance a more inclusive and sustainable future. 

Make a Difference for B.C.

  • We made significant progress this year on the SFU Medical School. In June, SFU submitted a draft business case to the Ministries of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills and Health—a major milestone. Since then, we have been working closely with the Ministries to refine the proposal so the business case is ready for Treasury Board submission this fall. In the meantime, we are moving forward with implementation of the medical program so we are ready to enroll students in 2026.  
  • I have championed SFU through numerous meetings with members of the municipal, provincial and federal governments, including B.C. Premier David Eby. Through these meetings, I have continually stressed the importance of the post-secondary sector to the future of B.C. and Canada and engaged government representatives on challenges SFU is facing, including overall funding, student affordability, infrastructure challenges (specifically our top capital priority, the Life Sciences building) and housing.
  • We opened two major housing projects—the Courtyard Residence and graduate and family housing—on the Burnaby campus. On-campus housing both improves the student experience and relieves pressure on the rental housing market in B.C., and we are committed to continued expansion of student housing under our Residence and Housing Plan.
  • We continue to partner with municipal, provincial and federal governments on projects that will make a difference in communities across B.C., including the Burnaby Civic Innovation Lab and the B.C. Centre for Agritech Innovation.

Transform the SFU Experience

  • We established SFU’s inaugural Equity Office. From the creation of the institution-wide Equity Compass to receiving Special Programs approval for SFU to move forward with a Black cohort hire and SFU’s first time marching in the Vancouver Pride Parade, the office—and many contributors across the university—are working to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive community where all can thrive. 
  • It is critical that we continue to foster a safe and respectful workplace at SFU. To help the community navigate the supports available, we launched a new community supports page.
  • We are actively actioning the People Plan—a blueprint for transforming the faculty and staff experience and making room for everyone at SFU to do their best work.
  • To improve transparency into decision-making and actions underway, Board Chair Angie Lamarsh and I have been releasing reports after each Board meeting containing major updates from across the university and will continue to do so. 
  • Construction has begun on the Marianne and Edward Gibson Art Museum, which will transform the cultural landscape at SFU, providing free exhibits and programming for SFU and neighbouring communities.
  • SFU worked closely with the Ministry and was awarded 500 new tech-relevant spaces as part of the provincial StrongerBC Future Ready Action Plan to meet the demand for technology workers.
  • Thanks to continued advocacy from our community, the Burnaby Mountain Gondola is now part of the investment plan of the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation.
  • We are preparing to launch the most ambitious fundraising campaign in SFU history to support students and advance key institutional priorities. 

This much progress and activity does not come without challenges. We have faced our share, and will no doubt continue to make mistakes, learn and move forward. I have learned a few valuable lessons over the past year—in particular, the importance of engaging with our internal community. You will see a number of listening and dialogue opportunities this fall, including a faculty and staff town hall on September 13 and a Leaders’ Forum in October. There will also be opportunities for you to provide feedback to the Presidential Reappointment Committee. Details about how to get involved will be shared by the committee through the Board of Governors website. I hope you’ll participate and share your voice.

The executive team has been carefully monitoring our budget. We recently reported that SFU is projecting a revenue shortfall for 2023/24 due to softening international enrolment numbers; in addition, the B.C. government is undertaking a funding review of the whole post-secondary system, which may have ramifications for our budget. At the same time, we know that inflationary pressures and a difficult housing market continue to affect members of our community. I am confident that we will weather this storm, but in this landscape, we need to make strategic—and often difficult—decisions about how to support our community while protecting our core academic and student-facing functions. 

Despite, and perhaps because of, these challenges, we are laser focused on our priorities for the year ahead. In my role as president, I will continue to raise SFU’s profile externally, provincially, nationally and globally to enhance our reputation and support partnerships that advance our priorities. We are also committed to further progress on the SFU Medical School, continued work towards negotiating collective agreements that support the best interests of the university community and the delivery of our new strategic vision. There is a lot of work to be done in the next year...and I know none of that work happens without you.

Thanks to each of you for your contributions to our community and to the faculty and staff behind every achievement I’ve listed here. When I say that I’m proud to be part of the SFU community, I’m talking about the community that we’ve built together—a community that cares about students, looks out for each other and is always looking for ways to improve.

Good luck with the start of the term, and I look forward to connecting with you this fall. It’s going to be a busy year. I can’t wait to dig in.

Joy Johnson
President & Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University