You probably will have heard the name Tom Symons. He was the founding president and vice-chancellor of Trent University and later the namesake for its main campus in Peterborough. For over two generations, he also had a profound involvement in expanding human rights in the province, rewriting national heritage and cultural policies, and promoting higher education around the globe. Throughout it all, he was based at Marchbanks, his beloved Peterborough home named in homage to his friend Robertson Davies (who sold him the property). It is there that he also raised three children with Christine, his wife of 57 years. Tom Symons lived a full life. In fact, it felt like he lived several full lives while irrevocably changing the lives of countless others.
Symons was a Companion of the Order of Canada, an honour that only 165 living Canadians can hold at any given time. The motto of the Order is a simple phrase that when translated into English reads: “They desire a better country.” It is a mantra that was custom-made for Tom Symons as he spent his life trying to make things better. His early career included the revitalization of the University of Toronto’s Devonshire House as its Dean and the authoring of a report that suggested fundamental improvements to the university’s collegiate system. At the age of 33, he took on — what would be, for most, the job of a lifetime — the creation of a new university. Branded “Oxford on the Otonabee,” Trent University embodied the youthful energy of the 1960s while being firmly rooted in the successful collegiate pedagogies of small group learning in an interdisciplinary setting. It might be surprising to know that Symons, in spite of attending Oxford, never warmed to the comparison between the new institution and his 800-year-old alma mater. He saw Trent as being more in the style of England’s Durham University that featured over a dozen university colleges intrinsically linked to the larger, central university. He also saw Trent as the first, and at the time, only university dedicated to the cross disciplinary study of Canada. “We feel a deep commitment to make Trent an important voice in helping Canada understand itself and its past,” he observed in an article published in the Toronto Telegram in 1965. “This is why I can’t understand the comparisons with Harvard or Oxford. What we aim to be is more Canadian than anyone else.”
Tom Symons loved teaching. He fervently believed that the collegiate system with its small classes, tutorials, and interdisciplinary mix of students, was the best way to engage the modern student. In 1971, he was called upon by the Ontario government to mediate a French-language schooling dispute in Sturgeon Falls. After its successful resolution, Symons took the government stipend for the work and used the funds to create an award at Trent. This new initiative would become the Symons Award of Excellence in Teaching offered yearly to an “outstanding teacher who has made a distinctive impact on [students’] learning, and overall, experience at Trent University.” He felt that Trent students had the best instructors and wanted to ensure that their efforts were properly recognized.
His love for students was paramount and students loved him in return. The 1960s was an era of protest that saw vocal student demonstrations. Yet in 1968, when rumours emerged that Tom Symons might leave the university to pursue a career in federal politics, the students staged a demonstration demanding that he stay. It may have been one of the only times that students of that era actually protested in favour of a university administrator! He adored the energy of students and the boundless possibilities for the future that they offered. Long after he left the position of university president in 1972, Symons continued – as Vanier Professor – to offer tutorials, supervisions, and lectures. Unable to stop teaching, he continued to mentor students and hold seminars in his 90s.
Tom Symons believed that higher education was essential for the future of Canada. Education was a process of self-improvement, of gaining wisdom and skills that would lead to the amelioration of the lives of others and, indeed, society at large. One of his greatest mentors was Professor C.A. Ashley whom he observed was one of the most learned people that he had encountered. For all of his knowledge and gravitas, what particularly impressed Symons was the fact that the learned Ashley had never acquired a Ph.D. Symons held a deep respect for scholarship and for the rigor of advanced degrees. Nonetheless, inspired by Ashley, he wholeheartedly believed that education and, indeed, wisdom could take many forms. As executor of the Ashley’s will, Symons set up an eponymous fellowship at Trent which honours those whose educational experience has transcended pure academics.
After a 12-year term as president of Trent University, Tom Symons took on a project that would further cement his influence upon Canada and higher education. He chaired the national commission on Canadian Studies and authored the multi-volume To Know Ourselves, later abridged into simply The Symons Report. In it, he took institutions to task for falling short in the advancement of the study of Canada. He remonstrated with university administrators for not doing enough fundraising and with the public for not donating more funds to Canadian education. It was a clarion call that inspired subsequent federal governments to inject more cash into Canadian culture, heritage, and education. Later, as chair of the Association of Commonwealth Universities, Vice-President of the International Council of United World Colleges, and founding chair of the Association of Commonwealth Studies, he channeled his passion for improvement into the promotion of higher education across the globe. Not only did he concern himself with the daily administrative issues; but, he also proved instrumental in the creation of over 13 colleges and universities across Canada and around the world.
Tom Symons made everyone feel special. When you were in his presence, he always offered his complete and sincere attention. If active listening was a course at Trent, he would have been able to teach a master class. He also read voraciously and carefully. Attention to detail and the complexities of every situation was important. However, he also appreciated the simple things in life. Many of those reading this, and who met Tom, will know what I mean.
Above all, Tom Symons was human, although he rarely showed his displeasure in public. He taught me many important life lessons, but one important piece of advice for anyone tasked with management or governance was the simple philosophy: “Make sure that you say what you need to say, not what you want to say.” Nonetheless, he was frustrated when people did not agree with the things that he was truly passionate about. He could not understand the scholars who opposed his proposals to expand Canadian Studies. He was discouraged by those who failed to see the diverse and unifying power of the Commonwealth. He did not understand why anyone would question the value of the collegiate way, or the importance of downtown colleges integrated into the larger community.
On the morning of January 1, 2021, Tom Symons died peacefully at Marchbanks. Tom Symons did not think himself perfect, nor did he think perfect the country that he loved so dearly. However, this knowledge never stopped him from desiring a better Canada and working tirelessly to achieve it. It is hard to think of a better way to honour his legacy than to continue his vision of knowing ourselves, improving ourselves, and then setting to work to make the lives of those around us, better.
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