Andrew Petter reflects on 10 busy years advancing community engagement as SFU president

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      Andrew Petter can point to many achievements during his last 10 years as president of Simon Fraser University.

      There was the addition of a new $126-million building to house the sustainable energy engineering program at the Surrey campus.

      In Vancouver, there was the creation of the Charles Chang Innovation Centre, a hub for technology on the edge of the Downtown Eastside. That built on the already extensive community engagement and arts programming taking place at SFU Woodward’s.

      In addition, the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue helped the City of Burnaby develop a new housing policy. More student residences were constructed, including units for graduate students and those with children. 

      That's not all. Not by any means. An SFU community-engaged research hub went into the former police station at 312 Main Street. And the university dramatically ramped up Indigenization of the university with the help of its Aboriginal Reconciliation Council.

      But perhaps first and foremost, Petter reinforced a sense of pride that SFU was an outstanding university in a multitude of ways.

      The former University of Victoria law school dean’s final day as SFU president is August 31.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Petter said that he feels that SFU’s three campuses have contributed significantly to the economic, social, and cultural development of the communities they serve.

      “I have really felt it was a privilege to serve as president of Simon Fraser University,” Petter said. “I came to the university because I believed it was a university that had a different kind of culture and energy. It was prepared to take risks and do things that traditional universities don’t do.”

      In 2010–11, SFU launched a major consultation process before announcing a strategic vision to become Canada’s leading “engaged university”.

      This involved integrating innovative education with research and strengthening connections with communities. As part of this process, Petter even visited students' homes to hear from their parents.

      Every year as president, Andrew Petter showed up with his partner Maureen at the Indian Summer Festival. Here they're photographed with artistic director Sirish Rao and Metro Vancouver chair Sav Dhaliwal.
      Charlie Smith

      Community engagement became the mantra

      This vision has manifested itself in a multitude of ways, right down to how SFU sources goods and services.

      “When we do procurement now, we put it through a social lens,” Petter said. “Are we providing procurement opportunities that will support community development?”

      To cite one of Petter’s favourite examples, SFU ensured that there would be opportunities for small food-services providers who didn’t have the capacity to bid on the entire contract for the downtown campus.

      “The food is a lot better,” he said with a touch of glee. “We can now cater food that is much more diverse. It’s just a wonderful example of how doing the right thing also turns out to be hugely beneficial.”

      Similarly, at the Charles Chang Innovation Centre, there was no shortage of national and international chains that wanted open a coffee shop.

      “We didn’t want to do that,” Petter said. “We wanted to make it available to a local provider who would support the community.… And that resulted in Nemesis.”

      In April, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings placed SFU first out of 760 postsecondary institutions for its impact on sustainable cities and communities.

      This was part of a broader evaluation of how academic institutions are addressing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. SFU ranked 19th overall and fourth in the peace and justice category.

      “That was a wonderful form of affirmation for the whole university community,” Petter said. “And I think it’s a testament to the fact that the vision that we set for ourselves is not only working locally, but is gaining recognition internationally.”

      SFU Office for Aboriginal Peoples

      Indigenizing the university

      During his interview with the Straight, Petter used the word “community” 23 times.

      It came up in connection with, among other things, SFU Public Square’s annual community summits, the work of the Vancity Community Engagement Office at SFU Woodward’s, and the university’s efforts to spur the revitalization of Indigenous languages.

      In addition, Petter is proud of how the faculty of health has partnered with First Nations health authorities.

      He readily acknowledged that the culture of many universities is still very much an artifact of European thinking and European traditions. And he feels that it’s important for universities to be aware of that and be more open to alternative sources of knowledge and alternative ways of doing things. And, he added, they should offer credit when this is done.

      “Part of the engaged-university vision was not only that we engage with communities, but we do so in a manner that shows mutual respect,” Petter emphasized, “that we understand that universities are an important source of knowledge, but they are not the only source of knowledge.

      “Communities have important knowledge. Indigenous peoples have hugely valuable knowledge. And our obligation as an engaged university is to learn from, as well as share with. And that has to happen on campus as well.”

      This is why the Aborginal Reconciliation Council recommended Indigenization of the curriculum and the creation of safe spaces on campus that are culturally appropriate. Petter added that support to Indigenous students also involves recognition that campus land is situated on unceded Indigenous land.

      “All those things are hugely important to providing a safe, welcoming environment,” he said.

      Petter likes to think of himself as someone who’s helping to build and amplify the work of others. And that includes his predecessors as SFU presidents.

      William Saywell, a historian specializing in China, was president from 1983 to 1993. In that role, he played a pivotal role in forging international connections. According to Petter, SFU was among the first postsecondary institutions to establish formal relationships with universities in China.

      Saywell's successor was another historian, John Stubbs, who oversaw the transfer of development rights on Burnaby Mountain onto a much smaller footprint. That led to the development of the UniverCity master-planned community and preservation of enormous amounts of green space.

      Another SFU president, Jack Blaney, was instrumental, along with Saywell, in expanding the university into downtown Vancouver. Blaney’s successor, Michael Stevenson, seized on the opportunity to develop the SFU Surrey campus.

      “So when I came in, I saw the opportunity to build on all of that—a university with three campuses in B.C.’s three largest municipalities, each of which represented distinctive value and opportunities,” Petter said.

      In 2011, Andrew Petter lost a bet to the president of a Boston-area university, which is why he wore a Bruins jersey after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup final.

      Petter joins another university board

      On September 1, he’ll be succeeded by Joy Johnson, who’s been SFU’s vice president overseeing research and international initiatives.

      So what’s next for Andrew Petter?

      “I’m going to sleep a little,” he quipped.

      But he’s not going to completely shut down. That’s not his nature. He plans to help Johnson in connection with the university’s partnership in a business accelerator in Mumbai. 

      He's also accepted an offer from the Aga Khan to join the board of the University of Central Asia, which has campuses in the Kyrgyz Republic and the Republic of Tajikistan, as well as learning centres in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan.

      Petter noted that this university, like SFU, is very much a vehicle for social development. And it offers educational opportunities on hillsides and mountaintops, where many poor people live in these countries.

      “I’ve said no to most things to most things that have been suggested to me, but I couldn’t say no to this,” Petter said. “It’s such a huge privilege to serve on the board of trustees.”