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Looking back at a half-century of innovation atop Burnaby Mountain

(Courtesy: SFU.ca)

BURNABY (NEWS 1130) – Simon Fraser University is marking a major milestone this week, as the Burnaby Mountain campus celebrates its 50th anniversary.

“The intention was to do something distinctive, to be innovative, and to be different,” explains Hugh Johnston, a professor emeritus of History at SFU as well as the author of “Radical Campus,” the school’s official history.

A 1963 provincial government report recommended the founding of a second university for the Lower Mainland, but where to put it was left to one man to decide, Gordon M. Shrum, SFU’s first chancellor.

“Shrum had his choice of several locations in Surrey, in Coquitlam, in Delta, and in Burnaby, more than one in Burnaby, and he was just taken by the idea of putting the university up on the top of Burnaby Mountain,” Johnston recalls.

“He elected to build on Burnaby Mountain and I think he was persuaded by the dramatic location.  There wouldn’t be another university in the country that had as spectacular a location as SFU.”

Some would say it wasn’t the most practical choice, but you could argue Shrum had his reasons.

“He was, at that time, running BC Hydro.  He noted that he could see the top of Burnaby Mountain from the old BC Hydro building.  He could run both places from his office.”

Fifty years later, architect Arthur Erickson’s concrete colossus shares Burnaby Mountain with UniverCity, a residential development 3,000 people now call home.

SFU also extends far beyond the hill, with satellite facilities in Downtown Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside, and Surrey.

And at a time when there may little to distinguish one university from another, Johnston says SFU has hung onto its independent spirit.

“The character is there in the spirit of innovation, in the spirit of doing things differently, and maybe even [in] the spirit of thumbing your nose at the rest of the national academic establishment,” he says.

“It is a different place, and the question I ask myself is, ‘Does anything survive from the beginning?’  So it was a different way of thinking at SFU and it does carry over to the present.”

Some of those innovations include SFU-developed disciplines like Women’s Studies, Kinesiology, and Computing Science.

Simon Fraser was also the first Canadian university to have a woman as its president when Pauline Jewett took on the role in 1974.

The drive to be different extends to athletics as well.

“We are now, just one small example, but the university is electing to put its varsity teams in American competition and it’s on its own in Canada that way.”

SFU is kicking off its 50th anniversary on Wednesday with a noon-hour launch party at the Burnaby Mountain campus.