Each fall, biology lecturer Tom Haffie refined his teaching to best connect with more than 1,000 new undergraduates in engaging, innovative ways. As they graduated along with hundreds of others four years later, director of convocation, Donna Peterson was busy refining some elements of the ceremonies to ensure their last experience with Western was memorable. Both are being recognized for their efforts and the impact they made throughout their more than 30-year careers with a President’s Medal for Distinguished Service.
“This award recognizes retired staff or faculty members for service to the university that goes above and beyond the requirements of their positions,” said Western President Alan Shepard. “We’re so grateful to Tom and Donna for the immeasurable contributions they’ve made to our community over their 30-plus-year careers here at Western. I can’t think of more worthy recipients of this honour.”
Connection and community
“Thinking back over my career I see the common thread was ‘connection,’” said Haffie, who came to Western in 1985 as an instructor in what was then the department of plant sciences, a role he held until 2000, when he became a lecturer in the department of biology.
Highly regarded by students and colleagues for his skill and passion as a teacher, he was also renowned for his innovative approaches to pedagogy and student engagement, especially in large classes.
Among his many accomplishments, Haffie, who later became a fellow in Western’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, is credited with revolutionizing the way first year biology is taught and how students learn.
In 1995, Haffie was named a 3M National Teaching Fellow, Canada’s most prestigious recognition of excellence in educational leadership and teaching at the post-secondary level. He also made the list of TVO’s Top 20 lecturers in Canada in 2008.
He’s quick to credit the technology that became available during his tenure and the students and colleagues who helped implement his ideas.
“Looking back at those particular 34 years, from the late 80s and on into when the internet was born, I was fortunate to have tools to use in very large (500+ students) classrooms,” Haffie said. “To communicate with students by email, for example, was miraculous.”
Haffie was the first instructor at Western to use handheld audience response systems, more commonly known as “clickers,” to promote active learning. This led to the campus-wide implementation of the PRESSWestern classroom technology system.
“The clickers provided an opportunity, a channel of connection with 800 students at once, and that’s pretty mind blowing,” he said. “They allowed for ‘conversations’ with big classes to discover what the class did or didn’t know. You can deliver a whole lecture based on assumptions of what they know, but with the clicker you can discover what they know in real-time and tailor your lecture to the class.”
As someone who saw his role beyond just training biologists, he worked to create a collaborative community of both students and teachers, implementing a successful ‘students as partners’ initiative, where students helped design the direction of their courses and their learning.
“We were trying to find a new way for students and faculty to interact with each other in a way that is more satisfying and fulfilling. How do you interact with a prof as a person rather than as someone just trying to train you?”
Haffie’s desire to create community also saw him deliver two-stage exams.
“The students would write their test, then would get together in groups in the exam hall and collaboratively take the test again,” he said. “There were a lot of logistics, and it took a lot of teaching assistants and colleagues to help make that happen.”
It’s instructors like Tom who remind us of our responsibilities to the thousands of students who arrive at Western.~from President’s Medal nomination submission for Tom Haffie
Haffie received his medal from Western chancellor Linda Hasenfratz last month during convocation. It marked a special chance to connect with the final cohort of first-year students he taught before he retired in 2019.
“We never expected to see each other again,” he said. “To come back to campus and celebrate with them after they got their education during two to three brutal years of dealing with COVID, and to see them on that stage, made the whole thing particularly sweet.”
Everybody is important
As someone who has worked at and presided over convocation ceremonies for more than 37 years at Western, Donna Peterson understands the significance of those special moments.
“Convocation is the single most important ceremony in the life of the university,” she said. “And for a lot of students and their friends and families, convocation is the last image they have of Western.”
Peterson’s career at the university began in 1971 as a full-time teacher of dance. She became involved with convocation in 1982 as assistant marshal, with her roles growing to assistant director, and then becoming convocation director in 1999. She retired from teaching in 2011 but stayed on as convocation director for another eight years.
Although she references convocation as “the last hoorah” for students and their families, she’s also quick to say Western’s is not just a ‘rah-rah’ event.
“It’s a rite of passage,” she said and, as noted by one of her nominators, Peterson “made Western’s convocation respectful and dignified, focused on the graduating students.”
In the most graceful and gracious way, Donna was always available to help, efficiently and intelligently so that the ceremony started and finished on time, with the maximum focus being on the graduates. Numerous other universities and colleges came to watch Western’s convocation and to use it as a model of how to do a convocation best.~from President’s Medal nomination for Donna Peterson
Working over the years with six presidents and thirteen chancellors while supervising about 250,000 students graduating from Western, she is lauded as someone who “constantly refined some element of the ceremonies and encouraged members of her team to suggest and implement changes,” empowering those around her to do their best.
“Convocation is huge in terms of the number of things that need to be done, and the number of units that come together, from parking to the police and from the president’s office to the registrar’s office,” Peterson said.
“You have to respect the fact that people have a job to do, and you have to trust they’re going to do it. Respect them for that and treat them accordingly. And guess what? It works.”
And, of course, with all “live” productions, things don’t always go according to script. In a 2011 Western News article, she recalls a student cartwheeling across the stage, being handed a baby during the ceremony, and the year when a streaker made an appearance.
But what stands out, apart from celebrating all the students, is “all the cool people” she got to meet.
“I’ll always remember (renowned jazz musician) Oscar Peterson,” she said. “And (former Canadian Prime Minister) Jean Chretien, who was so nice and down to earth.”
She also recalls the year Western bestowed women’s rights champion and abortion provider Henry Morgentaler with an honorary degree. The decision brought national media attention and a protest outside the university gates.
“That convocation (June 16, 2005) stands out in particular because there was so much angst about us giving him an honorary degree. Yet, every other one of our honorary degree recipients that year, including (Father Edward A. Malloy) a Catholic priest and president of Notre Dame University, commented on the courage Western showed in honouring him.”
She was surprised and very touched to receive the president’s medal. “The fact the nomination came from people I really admire and had the joy of working with makes it even more special.”
Reflecting on her retirement, “It’s a different life,” she said. “But it’s all those connections to what has come before that make retirement rich.”