SUNY Optometry Founding President and Optometric Giant, Dr. Alden Norman Haffner, Dies at 87

June 23, 2016

The SUNY College of Optometry is saddened to share with its community the passing of its founding president, Dr. Alden Norman Haffner. He died June 22, 2016 at 87 years old.

Dr. Alden N. Haffner
Dr. Alden N. Haffner

“Dr. Haffner has an enormous legacy that reverberates here at the College and throughout the optometric community,” Dr. David A. Heath, president of SUNY Optometry said. “Without his tireless support for the profession of optometry, both in New York and beyond, as well as his prescient vision, not only for optometry but for public health and education, the College and optometry would not be where they are today.”

In 1971, to address a growing need for optometric care in New York State, the legislature voted unanimously to establish the SUNY College of Optometry in New York City. The College was designed fill the void created when the state’s only school of optometry—at Columbia University—closed its doors in 1956. Dr. Haffner had been serving as the executive director of the Optometric Center of New York (OCNY), an organization of optometrists that maintained a clinic in New York City, offered post-graduate courses for practicing optometrists and lobbied the state on behalf of the optometric profession, when he was chosen to lead SUNY Optometry.

The College began classes in September 1971 with an inaugural class of 23 students. Dr. Haffner remained president until 1978, by which time enrollment had grown to approximately 230 students. That year he became vice chancellor for research, graduate studies and professional programs at SUNY System Administration in Albany. He served in that role for a decade, returning to SUNY Optometry in 1988 to begin a second stint as president until his retirement in 2005.

Dr. Haffner was a major champion of public health throughout his career. He served as president of the Public Health Association of New York City and received its coveted Haven Emerson Award in 1977. He was the founding chair of the city’s Community Family Planning Council, an organization that works to provid access to quality health care services for low-income and uninsured New Yorkers. He also served as chair of the American Academy of Optometry’s Section on Public Health and Environmental Optometry from its inception for more than two decades. Dr. Haffner was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to the Subcommittee Medical Advisory Group in the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1987. The American Academy of Optometry recognized his contributions to public health by naming him the inaugural recipient of the Henry B. Peters Memorial Award in Public Health and Environmental Vision in 2014. He was also president of the prestigious Hermann Biggs Society. Dr. Haffner had nearly 200 scholarly publications during his career, mostly in the fields of public health, health care policy and optometric education.

Dr. Haffner was also credited with helping to lead a profound shift in the way that optometry was practiced beginning in the late 1960s, aiding the transformation that the profession made from non-therapeutic practice  toward a more broad, “medical model” that was better suited to the training that optometrists received as well as the public health needs of the community.

A 1948 graduate of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Dr. Haffner received his Doctor of Optometry degree from the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) in 1952. During the course of his career, Dr. Haffner also earned an MPA and a PhD in public administration from New York University. Both Salus University, which houses PCO, and NYU have honored Dr. Haffner. In 1992, he received the Troy R. Westmeyer Distinguished Alumni Award from NYU. More recently, Salus University created the A. Norman Haffner Legacy Fund to support public health scholarships for optometry students in the Master of Public Health program.

In 2011, at a SUNY Optometry dinner honoring Dr. Haffner, Mr. Richard Feinbloom, then-president of the OCNY which now serves as the College’s affiliated foundation, announced a gift to establish the Dr. Alden N. Haffner Innovation Chair. The first endowed chair in SUNY Optometry’s history, it was designed to attract promising, young faculty to the College.

“Dr. Haffner was a great ambassador for optometry and his passing is a big loss for our community and our profession,” Dr. Heath said. “But his enormous impact and legacy will live on for generations to come.”