Roma Harris says goodbye after 40 years

Roma HarrisProfessor Roma Harris served her last day at Western on June 30, 2014. Roma has been part of the Western community for 40 years, as a student, professor and administrator. A long-time faculty member, Acting Dean and Assistant Dean in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Roma also served 13 years as Vice-Provost and Registrar for the university before returning to teaching and research to finish out her career in FIMS. She took some time to reflect on her career, colleagues and memories.

From Roma:

It was with a mixture of anticipation, anxiety, and regret that I advised Dean Carmichael a little over a year ago that I planned to take early retirement.  It took me a while to bring myself to sign the required form – the word ‘irrevocable’ jumped off the page as a harsh reminder that a huge part of my life was coming to an end.  I’ve spent four decades at Western, as a graduate student, a brief stint as a faculty member in the Department of Psychology and, since 1982, as a faculty member in the various iterations of the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS).  I’ve also served in various roles as an academic administrator, including 13 years as vice-provost and registrar.  It’s been a long haul, but, fortunately, never boring.  The amazing thing about an academic career is the opportunity it affords for constant change and renewal.  Every year, there are new students to teach.  There is no end of interesting new avenues to explore in research. And, in administrative service, there is a constant stream of new problems that need attention.

In looking back, I’ve realized that the highlights of my career all involve special people with whom I’ve had the opportunity to work.  One of the things I loved most was working on collaborative research projects with people who taught me a lot and also made me laugh.  I can’t forget the blisters Nadine Wathen and I got as a result of an ill-advised decision to walk from our hotel in Amsterdam to a research meeting at the office of our lovely colleague, Sally Wyatt.  By getting ourselves thoroughly lost, not only did we miss the scheduled meeting by nearly two hours, but we had to face the embarrassment of having to be rescued.  Also memorable are the many good-natured arguments I had with my friend, co-author and office neighbour, Pat Dewdney, whose departure from the then GSLIS was one of the saddest occasions in my working life.  And, of course, there is nothing like the satisfaction of watching graduate students emerging victorious from a thesis defense after working their way through the long, hard slog of the Ph.D. program.

During my long history with Western, I’ve been reminded repeatedly of the incredible dedication of the university staff members who have gone far out of their way to help out students and faculty.  One event that stands out for me is the convocation ceremony at which Henry Morgentaler received an honorary degree.  I won’t forget the dozens of staff members, especially from the Office of the Registrar, who showed up at 6:30 a.m. to prepare for and welcome graduating students and their guests and to ensure they had safe passage past shouting demonstrators who were protesting the university’s decision to recognize Morgentaler (Western was the first university in Canada to do so).
Faculty members who are seconded into administrative positions generally have little background to prepare them for managerial roles and I was no exception.  I didn’t realize, for example, the hornet’s nest I was stepping into when I tried to persuade the undergraduate student society to shorten ‘O-week’ - a student-run Western tradition ostensibly intended to help first-year students to adjust to university life, but which was actually a week-long booze-up for upper-year undergraduates.  Over time, the event has changed a lot, but I won’t forget making my way to a Senate meeting through a gauntlet of protesting students carrying signs about the ‘anti-fun’ ‘registrar lady’.  Another low point of my administrative life was the fast-tracked implementation of the new student records system, PeopleSoft, prior to the dreaded Y2K.  It was not a smooth implementation, in part because staff were overloaded with work as a result of position cuts that resulted from drastic budget reductions across the administrative units of the university due to the financial policies of the then Harris (no relation) government in Ontario.  The student records system was operational in time for the clocks to roll over into the new millennium, but barely.  It had little of the functionality of the old system and no one was happy, especially with me. It was a very stressful time and without the generous support and guidance I received from talented colleagues like Krys Chelchowski and Glen Tigert I don’t think I would have survived for long as an administrator.

With the opportunity new technologies afford for faculty members (and graduate students) to work away from campus, it seems, more and more, that it is the administrative staff who provide the glue that keeps the university community together. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the warmth and kindness shown to me by people like Ella Young, Cindy Morrison, Becky Blue, John Fracasso and others, it would have been a very tough transition for me when I returned from my administrative post as a full-time faculty member at FIMS. When I first came to SLIS as a new faculty member, I was impressed by the sense of community that existed in our little School.  Faculty members, students and staff knew each other, looked out for one another, and shared a sense of common purpose.  Despite some of our eccentricities and differences in opinion and academic background, faculty members were generally respectful of each other’s opinion and willing to share the burdens of service to keep the place running.  It’s a great pleasure to work in that kind of collegial environment and my hope is that the sense of common cause and mutual respect will grow again at FIMS.   

Roma Harris, June 2014