When Andrew Petter sits down in his office at SFU Harbour Centre to speak with the Georgia Straight on August 31, he’s celebrating an anniversary. It’s been two years, to the day, since the former NDP cabinet minister became president of B.C.’s second-largest university, which has campuses in Burnaby, Surrey, and downtown Vancouver.
He says that he often wakes up at 6 a.m., and because there are many evening events, he sometimes doesn’t get home until 11 p.m. or even later. So which job offers up a busier schedule: university president or politician? Keep in mind that Petter held some of the most challenging portfolios in government, including finance, attorney general, health, aboriginal affairs, and forests.
“University president,” Petter replies with a smile. “I volunteered that to someone today.”
One reason is that Petter has taken to the job with such gusto. Not long after becoming president, the former UVic law-school dean launched an ambitious university and community consultation process called envision>SFU. There were hallway chats, public meetings, and online engagement, seeking input from students, staff, faculty, alumni, and members of the community.
“I’ve always had a belief that societies that are healthy are societies in which the community is really brought into the decision making,” Petter says, citing his admiration for author E.F. Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful vision of a decentralized democracy. “If you go back to Athenian democracy and the city-state…a healthy society and a free society and a democratic society is one in which citizens are empowered through their own participation in making decisions about things that affect their lives.”
It’s a message he appears to have taken to heart. SFU’s director of public relations, Scott McLean, tells the Straight that he’s worked at three universities and has never witnessed a public-engagement process like the one Petter undertook.
“He even went to students’ houses and had dinner with them,” McLean says. “You never hear of that.”
Petter mentions that the idea of meeting students on their own turf “sort of bubbled up” through the envision>SFU process.
“Hearing from their parents, hearing from their brothers and sisters—it was really fascinating,” he comments. “It gave one a very different view than if I had never done that.”
The result of all this interaction was a new vision of SFU, launched earlier this year, as “Canada’s most community-engaged research university”. The underlying principles respect academic and intellectual freedom, diversity, internationalization, aboriginal peoples and cultures, a supportive and healthy work environment, and sustainability.
“If we can not only do a great job of traditional classroom teaching with our students, but actually get our students engaged in the community in the way that SFU has already done—and can do even more of—they will get a better learning experience at the same time as the community will benefit in ways that go beyond that of a traditional education,” Petter says.
Similarly, he suggests, if researchers are encouraged to address environmental and social issues, they will not only contribute to society, they’ll gain greater motivation and gratification.
“We can leverage the university in a way that will produce benefits for the community, but also benefits the university,” he insists.
One of the cornerstones of the new strategic vision is the SFU Public Square initiative, headed by Shauna Sylvester, to promote inclusive dialogue and arts programs with the community. From September 18 to 23, SFU Public Square will host its first annual community summit, titled Alone Together: Connecting in the City. It was created in response to a Vancouver Foundation study revealing that many people, including those in the 25-to-34 age bracket, feel isolated in the community.
The summit will include an opening night at the Orpheum Theatre, featuring spoken-word artist Shane Koyczan and the band Bend Sinister. As well, there will be conversations with urban planner Larry Beasley, SFU chancellor Carole Taylor, CBC Radio host Nora Young, and the Vancouver Foundation’s Catherine Clement about how to overcome a feeling of disconnection.
There are 10 other summit events at SFU’s three campuses, including a September 20 Urban Conspiracy Cabaret with comedians Charlie Demers and Richard Side at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s, and the Alone Together Film Festival, running September 21 to 23 at SFU’s Surrey campus theatre.
Petter points to the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s as an example of how the university’s infrastructure can be a catalyst for more community engagement.
“The PuSh Festival has moved in there,” he says with pride. “The Indian Summer festival is taking place there. There’s all sorts of student productions there.”
He even mentions how Michael Audain, chairman of Polygon Homes Ltd., did a presentation there with KCTS, the Seattle-based PBS television station, about his experience as a freedom rider during the U.S. civil-rights movement.
SFU has a strong history of public engagement. Over the years, many of its academics—including Mark Jaccard, Marjorie Griffin Cohen, John Lowman, Neil Boyd, Krishna Pendakur, and Catherine Murray, to name a few—have distinguished themselves as public intellectuals.
The university even offers the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy for academics who stir up trouble with their research.
Petter insists that the university will not lose its focus on research. But Prof. Glenn Chapman, president of the SFU faculty association, tells the Straight in a phone interview that some on campus would still like to see a greater emphasis in this area, whereas others don’t share this worry.
“People really like the idea of the university being engaged,” he adds.
The only caveat, according to Chapman, is that in the course of all that public engagement, governments and citizens might end up unhappy with what the university is bringing forth in its role as an independent source of information about societal issues. To date, he says, this hasn’t been a problem.Chapman notes that Petter has spoken in defence of the university’s traditional role, and has been out in the community to a greater degree than his predecessors.
“I think our relationship with Andrew Petter is working well,” Chapman says. “We, of course, have some differences of opinion, but he certainly has maintained a good relationship with the faculty association and, through us, with the members.”
Petter is quick to share credit with university staff, faculty, researchers, and board members. He offers effusive praise of former presidents Michael Stevenson, Jack Blaney, and Bill Saywell, and former vice president Warren Gill, for their roles in the development of the downtown campus, which includes the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.
That’s one of several names of prominent businesspeople attached to the university. There’s also the Segal Graduate School of Business and the Beedie School of Business.
Petter says he enjoys fundraising, which is part of the job of any university president, citing an initiative with the Tula Foundation that contributed $8 million for an eco-based management program with the Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Nuxalk, and Wuikinuxv First Nations on B.C.’s central coast.
“If you have an institution that is doing things that are beneficial for the community—and one believes in [it] as much as I believe in what SFU is doing—it becomes very easy to fundraise,” Petter says. “What you’re really doing is giving people the privilege, the opportunity, the benefit to associate themselves with initiatives that can really make a positive difference for the community. One of the reasons I enjoy my job as much as I do is not only do I benefit from all the great work that our faculty, students, and staff are doing within the university, but I get to go out to people in the community and say, ‘Look, with a bit of assistance from you, we could take something and really make it even that much better.’ ”
Then Petter talks about former chancellor Milton Wong, a Vancouver financier and philanthropist who died at the end of last year.
“He phoned me up two weeks before he passed away and said, ‘Andrew, I need to see you. We need to do more—SFU needs to do more—on aboriginal health,’ ” Petter recalls. “Here he was, within two or three weeks of passing away, and he wanted to make sure that we were living up to his expectations of us, even though he’s no longer chancellor.”
Petter has always had a passion for aboriginal issues. He says that one of the things he was most proud of accomplishing at UVic was helping to make it the leading centre in the country for aboriginal legal education. And on this day, he’s proud to discuss a new executive MBA in aboriginal business and leadership at SFU. He credits faculty member Mark Selman and Beedie School of Business dean Daniel Shapiro for helping make it a reality.
“Deans and university presidents can do nothing by themselves,” Petter remarks. “What they can do is help people who have great ideas to realize these ideas by providing support and helping to marshal resources.”
As the interview concludes, Petter prepares to head to the Vancouver Museum for a celebration of Brazil Day, hosted by consul general Sergio Florencio. A few months ago, Petter and other university presidents accompanied Gov. Gen. David Johnston on a trip to Brazil in response to President Dilma Rousseff’s Science Without Borders program, which will send 100,000 Brazilian undergraduate students abroad to study.
“We were able to secure an agreement, thanks to the Governor General’s leadership, for 12,000 of them to come to Canada,” Petter says. “SFU, UBC, and UVic will all take their share.”
Later, at the Brazil Day event, Florencio leads a large crowd in singing his country’s national anthem. The Straight spots Petter belting out the lyrics with the Brazilians, making him perhaps the only Canadian in the room who is able to do this.
In the world of Andrew Petter, community engagement takes many different forms.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.