The University’s Role and Contributions to a Just Recovery Over the Next Decade

February 04, 2021

Address at the 2021 University Social Responsibility Summit

Joy Johnson
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

It is an honour to join you today.

Let me begin by acknowledging that I am privileged to be speaking to you on the unceded traditional territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, Musqueam and Kwikwetlem Peoples.

As settlers on these lands, we have a responsibility to address and repair relations between ourselves, and the Indigenous people whose lands we occupy …
acknowledging this is an important step towards reconciliation.

I want to thank the University Social Responsibility Network for organizing this summit and the University of Pretoria for being our hosts.

I only wish we could be together in South Africa where I understand it’s 23 degrees.

But alas, here I am speaking to you from Vancouver, British Columbia, on Canada’s west coast, where it’s a little chillier and it’s dark outside.

Although I am relatively new to my role as president of Simon Fraser University, I am very familiar with the work of the Network…

…work that is more important than ever as the scope and scale of our global challenges compound.

Simon Fraser University is proud to contribute to the Network’s growth and success – as the only Canadian member institution.

As I begin, let me say that I hope the title of my remarks hasn’t raised expectations too high.

The university’s role in a just recovery over the next ten years varies depending on place and circumstance.

We all face different challenges.

That said, I do believe universities are uniquely positioned to play an important role in a just recovery and have a responsibility to do so.

I also believe that the global pandemic has both exposed and accelerated challenges that add enormous urgency to this work.

Despite the scope of these challenges, however, I remain very optimistic about the prospect of a more just, caring and humane society emerging from this crisis.

My optimism stems, in large part, from how our society – including the academic community – has responded to it.

From the pandemic’s onset, universities worked tirelessly to move tens of thousands of students from in-person to online learning in a matter of weeks.

At SFU, this effort was propelled by the goodwill and imagination of thousands of people working together in common purpose under the most challenging circumstances.

It certainly hasn’t been easy.

But it is a remarkable achievement.

And it is echoed across societies in the greatest mobilization of public resources in living memory.

Perhaps the most significant lesson we have learned from this experience is the importance of our interconnectedness.

COVID-19 has reminded us all of the obligations we owe to each other.

As a result, the pandemic is re-ordering political priorities.

It is inviting a re-examination of long-held assumptions about the value of certain kinds of work.

And it is exposing entrenched divisions in our society that demand our attention.

In British Columbia, the province I live in, COVID-19 has helped to shine a light on the terrible health and social costs of the opioid and homelessness crises. has exposed shortcomings in our health care system, particularly for senior citizens.

…and it is advancing a conversation about reconciliation with Indigenous communities that have been especially vulnerable to the pandemic’s effects.

In the academic community, the pandemic is also forcing us to examine our assumptions about how to prepare our students for a fast-changing and uncertain economy.

And it is drawing attention to the challenges those students are facing as a consequence of a deep recession and brutal job market.

Of course, many of these issues are not new. 

They were there long before pandemic.

And if we simply return to the status quo, we will have failed to learn from the crisis and missed a historic opportunity to achieve transformative change.

But I don’t think people want to return to things as they were.

We can’t squander this opportunity.

People are looking for leadership to help steer their economies and societies in a better direction.

And it’s our responsibility to help answer the call.

Let me say a few words about three areas where I think universities can play a significant role in this effort and point to a few SFU-specific examples of that work in action.

First, as proven agents of social and economic mobility, universities have an important role to play in address the rising costs of social and economic inequality.

This has always been central to the promise of higher education.

At our best, universities have fulfilled that promise by greatly expanding the distribution of opportunity and knowledge.

Today, with historic levels of inequality warping our economy and threatening our public discourse, universities must restore this purpose.

In good societies, higher education is not a mark of elite privilege and entrenched social divisions.

It is a democratizing force.

And here in British Columbia, where I live, we need to do a much better job at extending the promise and benefits of post-secondary education to under-served communities.

That’s why at SFU, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is one of our highest priorities.

We must confront the consequences of colonization and the role played by higher education in that oppression.  

We must Indigenize our curricula and research, improve our hiring, and provide new pathways and supports for Indigenous students.

At the same time, we must also advance the values of equity, diversity and inclusion across our institution by working with equity-deserving communities to dismantle structures of systemic racism.

This is difficult and challenging work.

It takes persistence and leadership at every level of the institution.

Second, in addition to advancing social mobility and equity, universities can also help our students develop the skills and talents they need to adapt to change.

This too has always been central to the promise of higher education.

And with the pandemic costing millions of jobs and damaging whole industries this too is more important than ever.

Experts forecast that over the next ten years, more than three quarters of the new jobs in B.C. will require a post-secondary degree.

And critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills will top the list of in demand competencies.

At SFU, we are responding to this demand by placing a high emphasis on experiential learning to help students gain practical experience. 

Our cooperative education programs are the most extensive in Canada. 

We are also helping in the transition to a low-carbon economy with cutting-edge programs like Sustainable Energy Engineering – a first of its kind in Western Canada.

And third, research universities have an enormous role to play driving innovation through the creation and mobilization of knowledge.

Again, this work has always been central to our promise.

Universities are mobilizing our research strengths to fight the health and social costs of the pandemic.

And now these same strengths can be harnessed to tackle other important challenges, like the existential threat of the climate change and the need to create new jobs and opportunities through innovation.

Before becoming president of SFU, I was vice-president of research.

Our team worked tirelessly to forge a connection between research in our labs and classrooms, and in the community.

That work continues. 

Through initiatives like SFU Innovates we’re connecting researchers and students with business and community partners to commercialize health technologies, provide R&D to local companies, and help create and scale-up business ventures.

Taken together, these three priorities – social equity, preparing our students for a changing world, and mobilizing research and knowledge – can help create a more just and lasting recovery.

But to maximize our contribution, they need to be informed by a larger and deeper commitment to the well-being of the communities we serve.

For those of you who are familiar with SFU, you will know that our main campus is on top of a mountain that sits in the middle of one of Canada’s biggest urban centres.

It’s hard to find a better visual metaphor for the distance that too often defines the relationship between higher education and the larger society.

But from its founding in the mid-1960s, SFU has fought against this image by having an impact in the community.

And over that time we have come to proudly define ourselves as Canada’s most community engaged university…

…not an ivory tower that stands aloof from the outside world…

…but a public institution whose influence is connected to the life of the community in a myriad of deep and meaningful ways.

It’s an evolving story.

We are always adapting to the demands and needs of a changing world.

But I believe that vision – that purpose – is more important today than ever.

Because in a crisis, there is also great opportunity.

And the power of education to unite…to heal…and to inspire…can help us seize this moment…

…it can help us build a just recovery and a more humane world.

Thank you.