Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, 149 West Hastings Street

Andrew Petter at the launch of SFU at 312 Main. Photo credit: Greg Ehlers.

Andrew Petter on the Engaged University

April 21, 2020

By Rachel Wong

We were thrilled to host Dr. Andrew Petter, president of SFU, on the latest episode of our Below the Radar podcast. Petter came into the role of president in 2010, and 10 years later, he is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life. He joined host Am Johal to reflect on the experiences he’s had before coming to SFU, the vision for his Strategic Vision for SFU, and why SFU will always be a big part of his life even after his term comes to an end.

Having a “dual perspective”

Andrew Petter came to SFU with diverse experience within the post-secondary context and, also, outside of it. He started teaching as a law professor at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and then joined the faculty of the University of Victoria law school. After taking some time to teach, he ran for public office and became an MLA and a cabinet minister working in different portfolios, one of which included Minister of Advanced Education. After serving two terms, Petter came back to the university setting and served as the Dean of the law school at the University of Victoria. Once at SFU, Petter was able to draw on his experiences in government and within the university to understand how these “two worlds look upon each other”: “I’ve benefited from having that dual perspective and being able to draw on one side of my experience or another depending on the issue or the moment.”

SFU as an institution that did things differently

What drew President Petter to SFU was the way that SFU did things differently. In particular, SFU had and still has a strong commitment to community-based education and research – something that he is a firm believer in. With so much opportunity, Petter wanted to be a part of the change and provide some strategic direction to energize the university.

There is a particular responsibility for universities as social enterprises to leverage the education, resources and talent that they have to be an anchor institution in the communities that they reside in. This certainly has become the case with SFU, with campuses located in Burnaby, Surrey, and Vancouver. The spread of the campuses has allowed for SFU to be city builders in the communities that they are located in: a growing UniverCity up at Burnaby Mountain, SFU Vancouver as the Intellectual Heart of the City, and SFU Surrey serving as a catalyst for urban transformation.

Challenges and successes along the way

 A key event that happened during Petter’s presidency was the release of the findings from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC highlighted the role that post-secondary institutions played in the past of excluding First Nations. In response, SFU released a plan entitled “Walk This Path With Us”. Petter noted that the outcome of the TRC provided an opportunity to make space for Indigenous people within the university and outside of it to guide in the process of reconciliation. This process led to some changes in the areas of programming and university priorities. Petter pointed to the expansion of the Indigenous Students Centre, development of a First Peoples Gathering Space at Burnaby campus, and SFU becoming the holder of a collection of Northwest Coast Art.

Another major challenge has been finding ways to improve the student experience. “SFU is a commuter campus where students come and go. In fact, we’re three commuter campuses where students come and go,” Petter said in reflecting on the student experience. He noted the diverse challenges that students face, from the distance to get from home to campus, or balancing school and work, or even balancing school and parenting. “Students don’t have the luxury of time to spend on the university campus that they might otherwise have, because they have economic and social priorities to attend to.” But with changes already underway – Petter notes the new Student Union Building and stadium at Burnaby campus among other things – he is excited to see that groundwork has been laid in this area for future developments.

The most meaningful part of this job

When asked what he will remember most from serving as SFU’s president, Petter reflected on the ideas and innovations of students and faculty. “I get a news summary every morning of things that are SFU related,” Petter said. “Almost every day, there’s something in there I didn’t know, and very often it’s about a student or a faculty member who’s doing something. And about 90% of the time it’s…really positive.” Further, he applauds students and faculty who continually step up to embrace the engagement vision. “I think many [students and faculty] are getting affirmation from our commitment to being an engaged university, so they know what they’re doing is not seen as collateral or something off the side of the desk – unless it’s the top side of the desk.”

For Andrew Petter, he knows that even once his time as president comes to an end, he will stay connected to SFU and looks forward to what comes next for the university as Dr. Joy Johnson steps into the role.

Listen to the Below the Radar episode with Andrew Petter:

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