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Staying engaged in an increasingly polarized world
I became president of SFU in September 2020, several months into the global COVID-19 shutdown. Because of that, I’ve spent most of my time as president connecting with the SFU community and our partners through Zoom screens, phone calls and emails. As the world has slowly opened up over the past year, I have enjoyed getting to spend more time on our campuses, seeing people face-to-face again—and most recently, travelling.
In early July, I flew to Singapore to participate in the 26th Annual President’s Meeting as part of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU), of which SFU is a member. Made up of institutions from across the Pacific Rim, the APRU brings together leaders and researchers from 60 universities to exchange ideas and collaborate on common challenges.
While in Singapore, I met with dozens of university presidents, international delegates and higher education leaders to discuss everything from pandemic recovery to equity initiatives and climate action. I learned how many university presidents are, like me, revisiting the mission of higher education and mobilizing the university to serve their constituents. And I came away with exciting ideas and deepened optimism about how SFU can leverage global collaboration and knowledge to better serve our communities here in B.C. and around the world.
In the months ahead, SFU will be an active participant in the APRU Sustainable Cities and Landscapes working group. We are also partners in a new APRU education initiative—SDGs for Global Citizenship—that gives students an opportunity to learn from and connect with peers from across the network as they work together towards advancing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which are a priority for SFU.
My time in Singapore was an encouraging reminder that SFU is part of a network of visionaries and change-makers in higher education, all working to create a more equitable and sustainable world. But my main takeaway was an appreciation for the critical importance of open dialogue and global engagement in our increasingly polarized times.
At its core, SFU is an institution that creates space for learning, teaching and research. Our faculty work to advance knowledge on a multitude of topics, and much of our job as a university is to support their research and protect their right to academic freedom while making room for dialogue, debate and critical inquiry.
At the same time, SFU is committed to working with communities, organizations and partners to create, share and embrace knowledge that improves life and generates real change. We have deep ties to our communities in B.C. and have also fostered strong relationships with universities and other institutions around the world.
The past couple of years have reminded us that the most pressing challenges of our day, from the ongoing pandemic to the climate crisis, transcend boundaries and are global in nature. Solving these challenges will require all of us—academics, researchers and community members in every country—to collaborate, share knowledge and build on each other’s strengths.
Global engagement lies at the intersection of all these topics. I believe that SFU’s international collaborations and partnerships are an important way to stay connected with the world around us and join in the work of building a brighter future for everyone. And true to our purpose as a university, part of that work includes building spaces for scholars around the world to learn, grow and contribute to solving urgent challenges.
Complicating all of this is the fact that we live in an increasingly polarized and destabilized world. Global politics are complicated and always shifting. In this environment, it becomes even more important for us to live out our commitments while continuing to engage with counterparts across the world.
Making an impact
Throughout our history, SFU has brought a nuanced lens to the work of partnerships and international engagement. We carefully consider our impact: who ultimately benefits from a specific partnership, and what would be the impact of not partnering or withdrawing a partnership?
Currently, SFU has more than 280 international partnerships in 25 countries around the world. These include partnerships with other institutions, networks and memberships that support academic freedom, such as:
- The SFU-ZJU Dual Degree Bachelor-Master Program in Computing Science and Fintech, which allows students to complete some of their studies at SFU and some of their studies at Zhejiang University in China
- The University Social Responsibility Network, which brings together 20 member institutions from across the world to collaborate on solutions to economic, social, cultural and environmental challenges
- SFU’s membership in Scholars at Risk, which allows SFU to offer temporary academic positions to scholars facing threats to their safety—most recently, SFU has hosted scholars fleeing persecution in Afghanistan
Ultimately, SFU values our partnerships because they bring benefits to people and communities, no matter where those people might be located. In fact, maintaining partnerships in the face of controversial—or even undemocratic—environments can allow us to do work that has the most potential to positively affect vulnerable populations.
Our partnerships are not about endorsing a specific government or political group; they are about supporting everyday citizens who want to pursue knowledge and make a difference in their communities. They are about connecting SFU to a global ecosystem of scholars and creating space for dialogue and new ideas, even with those whom we may disagree.
This is a complex space in which to operate. But if we are to live out SFU’s vision as Canada's engaged university, then sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option—and we haven’t! I’m very proud of all that we’ve accomplished so far when it comes to global engagement.
As the world continues opening up, I am excited to travel more and to keep forging partnerships that advance academic freedom, equity and inclusion, and sustainability around the world. And I’m excited to share that work with all of you.