When the Straight reached Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter by phone, he had a lot on his mind.
At the Surrey campus, a sustainable energy engineering building is under construction.
Up on Burnaby Mountain, a new 12,000-square-foot art museum has received funding. There's also a new hillside stadium with seating for 1,800 being constructed at Terry Fox Field.
Soon, new student residences will also be announced. And the population of UniverCity—the planned community on top of the mountain—has surpassed 5,000. He's hoping a gondola could eventually connect residents, students, and faculty to a Millennium Line station at the bottom of the hill.
Ever since Petter, a former provincial cabinet minister, became SFU president on September 1, 2010, he's been a man in a hurry. The former UVic law school dean routinely gets up at 6 a.m. and attends university-related events well into the evenings.
But by the end of summer 2020, he may finally get some down time.
That's because he's decided not to seek a third term as SFU's president.
"I still have another 20 months to go," Petter said. "I'm not quacking like a lame duck just yet."
He shared this news with the Straight shortly after being inducted into the Order of Canada.
As an advanced education minister in the 1990s, Petter observed how SFU was engaged in community building by developing a presence in downtown Vancouver at Harbour Centre.
Now, it has nine downtown Vancouver facilities—ranging from SFU Woodward's to the Charles Chang Institute for Entrepreneurship—as well as a thriving campus in Surrey Centre to serve the growing population south of the Fraser River.
It's a remarkable legacy for Petter, who never considered seeking the presidency of a university until the opportunity became available at SFU.
He was encouraged to do this by a former chancellor, Milton Wong, one of Canada's most distinguished philanthropists.
"I didn't think the university was getting the credit for what it was doing," Petter said. "It was sort of seen [as being] under the shadow, perhaps, of UBC, and not seen for the outstanding institution that it was—which is a different kind of institution but doing truly extraordinary things."
At the time, SFU had strategic plans for its academic planning and research, but according to Petter, "it didn't have a core vision."
So he and others spent more than a year developing this in consultation with students, faculty, staff, municipal governments, nonprofits, arts organizations, business associations, and Indigenous communities.
Out of this came the goal of becoming Canada's most engaged research university.
That led to the development of SFU Public Square, the RADIUS social-innovation hub, the SFU Change Lab, and a host of other initiatives to strengthen connections between the university and the communities in which it operates.
Another example is Innovation Boulevard, a partnership between SFU, Fraser Health, and the City of Surrey that's working with IBM to commercialize health technologies.
SFU also pioneered Canada's first executive MBA in Aboriginal business and leadership. It also created an Aboriginal reconciliation council to build on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
In addition, SFU Woodward's has become a major cultural hub, hosting film and cultural festivals, as well as theatre productions by Robert Lepage and other giants in the arts world.
Research remains a cornerstone
Petter emphasized that these community-based initiatives have not come at the cost of scholarship.
"One of the things I’m also really proud about the university is that even though we do put a strong emphasis on community engagement, we also measure up exceedingly well in the more traditional measures of universities," Petter said. "So our research income has grown faster than any other major research university in Canada in the last 15 years.
"We’re over $140 million of earned research income today, and when I became president, the goal was to hit $100 million. That’s hugely to the credit of our research community."
Former SFU president Michael Stevenson spearheaded the creation of a health sciences faculty, and under Petter's tenure, it has become internationally known for its research into the links between addiction, mental health, and housing.
SFU has also ramped up its research in applied sciences, perhaps most notably in mechatronic systems engineering.
According to Petter, the new building in Surrey will support SFU in creating the "first full-spectrum energy systems engineering program in western Canada with a real focus on energy with an environmental lens".
The building, one of famed architect Bing Thom's final designs, will have a façade that looks like a circuit board.
"The university has really fired on a lot of cylinders in terms of research, hugely due to a very dedicated faculty," Petter said. "I think we’ve amplified it with our innovation strategy, SFU Innovates. And through that strategy, we've given researchers more opportunity to have an impact in the community, both economically and socially."
Command and control doesn't work, Petter says
Some university presidents leave lasting impressions and are remembered for generations. Others come and go before their first term expires.
In light of this, the Straight asked Petter if he had a secret sauce for success in what's a very challenging job.
He replied that it's a mistake for university presidents to adopt a command-and-control approach in running their institutions.
"Universities are places made up of incredibly creative people with a high degree of autonomy," he said. "Your role is one of sense-making—of trying to create a sense of what's possible and helping people to gain that sense along with you.
"What I've really learned is if you can show people opportunities that they mightn't have seen previously and if you can give them validation—and in some cases encouragement or even some support of a more concrete kind—it's amazing," he continued. "Academics, and students as well, they want to make a difference. They want to contribute."
He added that a university president also needs to be a guide, a facilitator, and a consensus builder.
"You have to be someone who likes living in an environment where not everyone is perfectly aligned, where there's a lot of creativity," Petter said, "and where you get your joy out of seeing, sometimes, people rushing out ahead of you or doing things that you didn't know about—and trying to find ways to make it all work together."
It's too early to tell what's going to be Petter's next challenge. After all, he still has nearly two years remaining in his current position.
Plus, he's excited about the role SFU is playing in working with foundations to develop social infrastructure.
There's a pilot project underway with the McConnell Foundation examining how postsecondary institutions can use procurement strategies in socially sensitive and progressive ways.
"We were the first Canadian university to be invited to join the international University Social Responsibility Network," Petter noted. "I think SFU has very much been a leader in that space and has had an impact on the way that other universities are thinking and going about their business now."