SFU's new president flying under the radar

Andrew Petter's role is not to innovate but to simply manage

I just finished up my work for the Christmas holidays by interviewing Stephen Toope, UBC’s President, for a good hour or so. He conducts an annual interview with the student media each year, and it’s always a valuable opportunity to examine the mindset of a man leading of one of Canada’s largest universities.

Right now, UBC is moving forward on a number of “big picture” items: governance of lands, a new strategic plan, sustainability partnerships with Vancouver , and Toope is going about it confidently. But that’s to be expected. He’s been President for nearly five years, and having been reappointed to another five-year term in the summer time, is intent on seeing his vision for the university come to fruition.

The conversation made me think of Metro Vancouver’s other university—Simon Fraser University—and its new President, Andrew Petter, a former provincial NDP cabinet minister. Despite 35,000 students and a good reputation for a institution only 45 years old, SFU plays York to UBC’s U of T—not so much second fiddle as not part of the national conversation. Petter’s arrival at SFU merited a small story from the Vancouver Sun, but otherwise, his first few months have merited little attention.

Will this change? The university is well suited for growth in the next few years: With a recent move to the NCAA, and the development of satellite campuses throughout the lower mainland, SFU is in a strong position, so Petter’s job in the coming years may be more of a managerial one than anything else.

I asked Sam Reynolds, an SFU journalist, about what effect, if any, Petter’s first semester as President has had on the Burnaby campus, and here’s what he had to say:

Petter steps into the shadow of former SFU President Michael Stevenson. Under Stevenson, SFU continued to move away from relative isolation on Burnaby Mountain to being a vibrant part of the Metro Vancouver community with the extensive expansion of the University through openings of three new campuses. Stevenson inherited a University plagued with problems after a tumultuous decade, from academic program cutbacks and budget shortfalls to a long running sexual harassment case involving a swimming coach and a Science undergrad turned Fox News contributor.

Overall the student body of SFU as a whole has been rather blasé about the change in guard.

The only real challenge Petter has faced in his inaugural term is that of a negative response by student activists to a donation to SFU’s Woodward’s campus by Vancouver based gold producer, Goldcorp. These activists claim that Goldcorp has a rather sordid history of human rights abuses through their mining operations in the Global South and this donation is merely an attempt to distract the public and repair their image. Despite this manufactured activism, the student body as a whole is rather indifferent and nonchalant about the subject.

Petter has inherited a University that substantially redeveloped itself during the last decade. Petter’s role will not be to innovate, but to manage. SFU will face considerable, though not serious, financial pressure during the next decade and if Petter brings the University through this turbulent time unscathed he can call his term a success.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.