Simon Fraser University’s vision is to be Canada’s leading engaged university. And its incoming president and vice-chancellor, Joy Johnson, hopes to carry on fulfilling this when she replaces Andrew Petter on September 1.
Johnson's appointment was announced on Wednesday (January 8). For the past five years, she's served SFU’s vice president, research and international. Before that, she was scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s Institute of Gender and Health and a professor of nursing at UBC.
“I think the vision of SFU has really brought us so far in terms of engaging with our communities and industry partners,” Johnson told the Straight by phone.
SFU has the fastest-growing research income of any university in Canada, rising from $103 million in 2014 to $161 million this year. Johnson is an elected fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
As president, she’s looking forward to engaging more with students—in particular, by ensuring that their education remains as relevant as possible.
“There’s a lot we can do to continue to strengthen our learning environments here at SFU: making sure that our work-integrated learning and our co-op opportunities continue to grow,” Johnson said.
She acknowledged that students face financial strains. And she expressed a commitment to address the role that stress might be playing in their lives.
“Those will be the areas that I’ll be thinking about, for sure,” she noted.
As for her top priorities, she mentioned the importance of strengthening student services so they can have vibrant experiences inside and outside classrooms.
A second goal is to have campuses that are as inclusive as possible.
“We are thinking about issues related to equity and diversity for faculty, staff, and students. That makes for an excellent university.”
She’s also hoping that SFU will deliver on its commitments around reconciliation with Indigenous people. The university created an Aboriginal reconciliation council to move forward on recommendations issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. “There’s still some work to be done on that file, so I’d like to see progress being made there,” she said.
Johnson was chosen by the board of governors following a nine-month international search.
“Over the course of this competitive process, professor Johnson stood out from other candidates for her depth of academic and research expertise, commitment to students and enthusiasm for the future of SFU,” Fiona Robin, chair of the presidential search committee and SFU’s board of governors, said in a university news release. “We are thrilled to announce that professor Johnson is the successful candidate and look forward to welcoming her into this new role.”
In 1974, former NDP and Liberal MP Pauline Jewett became the first woman president of SFU. Johnson will become the second. She looks forward to the day when it’s not news that a woman becomes the head of one of the country’s major academic institutions.
“But I do recognize that it is important for women to also step up in leadership roles,” she stated. “That’s partly why I also put my hand up, because I think it’s important for us who have skills and ability to do so.”
She consulted with others who have been top university administrators, including Martha Piper, who was president of UBC.
“One thing she said to me is ‘You’ve got to stay focused. There are a lot of distractions out there. Every day, there will be a new opportunity to really think about what your university needs.’ And to stay focused and deliver on the vision. I think that was great advice,” Johnson said.
Her partner, Pam Ratner, and her mother are both very excited about Johnson becoming president of SFU. Her mother, in particular, is in awe of the enormity of the job.
“My mom is 84 and she is very proud,” she said. “But she also did say to me that she wished my dad was alive. He died about a year ago. She wishes he was alive to see this opportunity.”