My university now has three campuses, one of them being downtown where I currently work at the Centre for Dialogue. The original Simon Fraser University opened in 1966 at an isolated site high atop Burnaby Mountain near Vancouver. We established an urban beachhead in 1989, taking over a few floors of a former department store as our second campus.
SFU downtown is on my mind this week, because I was just interviewed for a video celebrating the upcoming 25th anniversary of our entry into the city center. I’ve never been much of an ivory tower kind of professor, but I recall being irritated when I heard about the opening of another campus. The university was experiencing budget cuts at the time and I didn’t see the value in diverting scarce funding from the mother ship on Burnaby Mountain, where I then worked.
I was so wrong. SFU downtown is an unusual campus for any university, and illuminates the vibrancy that emerges when universities fully engage with the communities they serve. Today, we have four major buildings that are filled to capacity with the faculty, students and staff who work here and the thousands of community members and dozens of programs that come to our campus every week.
The original building, Harbour Centre, has expanded by a number of floors, and is a heavily used meeting facility for non-profit, government and corporate organizations, in addition to the many outward-looking university departments and programs that are housed here and a cornucopia of non-credit Lifelong Learning courses.
The Wosk Centre for Dialogue is one of the premier spaces in the city for reflective conversation around the deep issues of the day, while the School for Contemporary Arts is full to capacity with dance, drama, music, film, painting and other arts programming.
The Business School houses many community-focused initiatives, from an aboriginal executive MBA to corporate sustainability enterprises and social venture incubation. Like our other buildings it’s full up day and night with university and community members collaborating in common purpose.
SFU’s community engagement profile is not the norm for academic institutions, where town and gown tend to exist in uneasy proximity rather than collaborative comfort. Why are academics, the gown, frequently disengaged from community, and the town too often uncomfortable with universities?
The barrier may not be lack of common interests as much as how we communicate. Academics live in a world of nuance, see ambiguity everywhere, and are uncomfortable with clear, definitive statements. We’re trained to write and speak with long words, complex language, and considerable jargon, making us hard to understand at times. We can appear disdainful through language and style that emphasizes complexity rather than simplicity, although at heart most academics are the nicest of people.
Non-academics prefer a direct bottom line over meandering language, clear and strong opinions presented without the ambiguous discourse typical of academic exploration. The town gravitates to media shock and awe rather than reflection, warming to short statements made with the certainty that academia rarely embraces.
SFU’s success at being an engaged university is a heartening reminder that university and community do have much in common, and we can learn from engaging together. Catalytic conversations and change-making outcomes emerge when we take the time to understand each other and work collegially.
It’s in diversity and interaction that our greatest wealth resides, and engagement is the tool that opens the door of what’s possible.