SFU President Andrew Petter

Andrew Petter Incoming president, SFU

Andrew Petter, SFU’s new president, was dean of UVic’s faculty of law, and also, briefly, B.C.’s attorney general

Andrew Petter
Incoming president, SFU

A legal academic who’s earned his stripes in B.C.’s political scene, Andrew Petter brings a rich skill set to his new job as SFU president, which begins in September. Petter is a former dean of UVic’s faculty of law, a department he’s called home since 1986 – apart from a 10-year contribution to B.C. politics. As MLA for Saanich South until 2001, he served in several cabinet positions, including attorney general, finance minister and minister of advanced education. SFU, which has expanded to the Whalley neighbourhood in Surrey and the Downtown Eastside in recent years, is no ivory tower, and Petter wouldn’t have it any other way.

Did you have any plans to find a new job before this position came up?
No. I had completed a turn as dean, and I was looking forward to getting back to more research and teaching. I wasn’t looking to take on another role. But when the presidency of SFU became free and a number of people encouraged me to consider it, it seemed that it held some of the same challenges I had enjoyed at UVic.

What will the job at SFU entail?
Ha! You should ask me in five years. I’m not coming with a predetermined agenda or trying to lead some top-down initiative. I think that in universities that does not work. My role will be to work with the faculty and students to enable them to better meet their goals, to bring out of the institution the best of what it can be.

But I also have a strong interest in helping the university better connect with the community. SFU has a graduate school of business downtown with strong connections with the business community, and now the Woodward’s project has the same kind of potential with the arts community and with the Downtown Eastside. And the mayor of Surrey is working to turn the Whalley area into a new centre, and I don’t think that would have happened without a strong presence from SFU. Connecting it even more strongly with all the diverse segments of the community will be a central preoccupation for me in this job.

Interacting with communities defies the traditional “ivory tower” stereotype.
Yeah, it’s one of my passions: the belief that universities have to justify themselves to their communities. You have to be able to show yourself and the community that what you’re doing is valuable in research and teaching. And one of the things that really drew me to SFU is that, more than any other university that I’m aware of in Canada, it doesn’t hold the view that it’s remote. It’s the university that started on top of a mountain but has really come down to the community.

What changes would you like to see in Canada’s university system?
Well, I don’t want to be presumptuous here – I’m the new kid on the block – but there is one thing I’m really concerned about Canada-wide: we’re increasingly seeing the larger research universities become more and more focused on research and graduate education at the expense of undergraduate education. And I think undergraduate students increasingly feel that they’re treated as almost a necessary evil. On the other hand, we see the emergence of new teaching universities, which are great in terms of focusing on the teaching side, but the students don’t get the exposure to the world-class researchers and the international opportunities.

You seem to have a facility for this kind of big-picture strategic thinking; is that part of what draws you into these administrative roles?
Yeah, I enjoy doing my own research and I enjoy being in the classroom and teaching, but it isn’t the same as working within the larger university community. It’s really exciting to be able to develop programs that will help make a difference in students’ lives. It’s the ideas and the relationships and the good things that come out of that that really excite me.

Was it that same reflex that drew you into politics?
To some extent, although the constraints in politics are greater. Our political system unfortunately tends to stifle creativity and cause monolithic thinking.

Has political discourse in B.C. deteriorated?
When I was growing up – and maybe I’m romanticizing – but I think of people like Lester Pearson and Tommy Douglas and John Diefenbaker. It was seen as an honourable calling. And the idea of exchanging ideas was not about personal differences; it was about trying to fight for what you believe is best. What discourages me is that so many young people who have so much to contribute don’t see public office as a venue for it. I think that’s of tremendous concern because in a democratic system I don’t think there’s an alternative. If the people with the ideas and ideals don’t see working within the government as productive, then I’m afraid government will be left to others, and that does concern me a lot.

What’s the solution to disengaged youth?
Education is the answer in terms of helping young people become more aware of possible answers and also helping them become civically engaged. By connecting students to the larger community and showing its relevance, I think that it really has the capacity to close the gap.