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3 key success factors of Canada’s ‘engaged university’, the Simon Fraser University

What differentiates the Simon Fraser University (SFU), from other universities in Canada and worldwide? This was exactly the question Prof. Andrew Petter asked himself and the university board when he became the university’s president in 2010. He aimed to identify and determine the future course of SFU by answering this essential question.

Seven years later, the university has metamorphosed into Canada’s ‘engaged university’, attributing the term ‘engagement’ in every core function of the higher education institution (HEI). Their vision To be the leading engaged university defined by its dynamic integration of innovative education, cutting-edge research and far-reaching community engagement” governs every strategic and operational decision.

The effort put into this development over the past years has been paying off for SFU. As of spring 2016, an external survey revealed that opinions of SFU’s reputation in general has shown some very positive results compared to the previous year. The perception of the university’s trustworthiness and approachability has improved by 12% (62% versus 50% in 2015) and 11% (63% versus 52% in 2015). Also, SFU is increasingly being recognised as innovative (63% in 2016 versus 52% in 2015).

Furthermore, SFU’s engagement efforts have a positive impact on relations to governmental entities and societal organizations. Companies, as well as philanthropic foundations show high interest to collaborate with the university.

How did SFU manage to achieve such a major transformation?

Literature on the engaged university highlights several crucial strategic and structural mechanisms, which facilitate the implementation of engagement activities within the university. In our analysis, SFU managed to execute many of them, with their success summarised in the following three key success factors.

Applying a process of ‘sense making’

It was essential for SFU that the new vision and strategy reflect the university’s culture and experience. Therefore, a process of ‘sense-making’ was applied, when envisioning and planning SFU’s new direction. Instead of following a generic top-down or bottom-up approach, an iterative process was launched, evaluating university capacities. During this process, SFU’s strengths and resources were identified, which later laid the foundation for developing the vision and strategy.

Creating a shared vision

A vision, shared by all stakeholders, is of great importance when developing and implementing the university’s strategy for community engagement. Furthermore, a shared vision is beneficial for acceptance if the latter university strategy among stakeholders within the university, as well as those outside.

Involving stakeholders in the strategic planning process

SFU acknowledged the importance of having a genuine conversation with all relevant stakeholders in creating their engagement vision statement and strategic plan by executing a vision development process. This interactive and iterative process involved internal and external stakeholders for a period of five months. It was seen as critical to involve all stakeholders in the strategic development process to ensure campus-wide and community-wide acceptance of the initiative. This integrative approach enabled an open dialogue and ensures the integration of the university’s, the region’s and the community’s needs and capabilities into a common vision and plan.


If you interested to learn more about SFU’s road to an engaged university read the full case study by Prof. Dr. Thorsten Kliewe here:


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