“As government has grown so vast and complex that the individual citizen feels helpless and frustrated when he has to deal with a government agency, so have universities grown so large and intricate that students often feel that they are no more than IBM cards. As citizens need help in coping with government bureaucracy, so do students need help in coping with University faculty and functionaries.”
– James Rust, MSU’s 1st Ombudsman 1967 – 1974
“Bureaucracy” – a word many of us shudder in reaction to when heard in our own lives as citizens of our communities. It elicits visions of red tape, dour expressions and long lines awaiting answers to the most basic of questions. For some, it evokes the sounds of muzak, the teacher from Peanuts, and sometimes doors slamming shut. I know that you are now picturing that stark uncomfortable gray room impatiently feeling neglected and unheard, same as many of our students today. James Rust, Michigan State University’s first ombudsman knew that these were experiences students faced when confronted with conflict within the university bureaucracy and sought ways to make it less daunting and to allow those in conflict to have their voices heard. I would venture to say that students face similar situations nearly fifty years later. However, it can now be felt in e-mails sent into the abyss, in the difficulty in meeting face-to-face in an ever mobile world, and in the barrage of information regarding what is and what is not in relation to policies and procedures… or at least their interpretation. That’s where the Office of the University Ombudsperson comes in…
As the Assistant University Ombudsperson at Michigan State University, I work to break down the barriers to understanding how the bureaucracy works and help students and faculty to navigate the system. As the longest standing ombuds office at a college or university in the country, our mission is to address concerns and issues related to students in a confidential, neutral, independent, and informal manner which we have done since 1967. Our official charge in the Student Rights and Responsibilities is “assist students in accomplishing the expeditious settlement of their problems.” Additionally, the office has “broad investigatory powers and direct and ready access to all University officials, including the President.” The office seeks to provide a platform for those who feel that they have no voice within the university system whether student, administrator, faculty member, parent, or alum and to address trends in due process and fairness that emerge in relation to policies and procedures. So, what does this mean and what is that we, or more specifically, I do?
I have to admit… I adore what I do. Firstly, because it speaks to my nature in seeking social justice. Secondly, because I can work outside the bureaucracy and provide perspective to the institution and its community (I have always liked working behind the scenes). Under that charge, my day can vary in relation to those that I work with. My first visitor in the morning may be a faculty member who has discovered a group of students collaborating on an assignment without his permission and he is seeking advice as to the appropriate manner to address the students. The second visitor who consults is a parent whose son is having difficulty with his diet in the dining halls due to a severe food allergy and needs to see who else he can talk to about it. The next visitor is a student charged with academic misconduct that wishes to appeal it, but wants to know more about the process and what happens next. The final visitor for the day may be an administrator from an academic unit hoping to gain insight into student rights and responsibilities as they implement a new policy in their unit for graduate students. These are only a few examples. Historically, about 80% of visitors deal with academic issues (grade disputes, academic misconduct, etc.) and 20% deal with non-academic issues (financial aid, housing, etc.). And from that, one might suspect that based on those percentages, my busiest times of years mirror the beginnings and ends of semesters, as well as final and midterm exams. However, from just these few examples, you can see that I do a lot of listening, advising, explaining, referring and reviewing.
Interspersed with our visitors, I continue to work on a number of initiatives designed to strengthen due process and student understanding of university processes and procedures. One project looks to provide faculty with rationale and guidelines related to academic misconduct penalties. Another looks at the potential for building transparency into the academic advising system by creating a Code of Academic Advising Responsibility. Finally, a third consists of meeting with offices on campus as they create and implement a new policy around sexual misconduct to ensure that due process is being met. Along with these, the office sits ex-officio on a number of committees including the University Committee on Student Affairs, the University Council, and the All-University Traffic and Transportation Committee among others. Sometimes I take time to write research and present for the higher education community on issues related to campus incivility, academic freedom and policy and procedure. The goal of participation in these committees/communities is to be in the role of problem anticipation as the university moves to implement changes that affect the rights and responsibilities of students.
You may now be asking yourself: “That’s wonderful, but what makes your office different from other resolution options on campus?” The Office of the University Ombudsperson adheres to the Standards of Practice as outlined by the International Ombudsman Association: confidentiality, informality, neutrality, and independence. The office walks a fine line when it comes to the notion of “power”, so these standards are vitally important to how I interact with the university community. Visitors are told that
- Unless I have their permission, I cannot share their story outside my office walls;
- I do not receive notice on behalf of the university, but that I will advise them as to where they can go to do so;
- I am neutral, I do not take their side nor the university’s;
- and finally, they are told that I am independent in that while the office is part of the university structure it is set up in such a way to question the decisions and processes of the institution and its representatives.
Hence, the office serves as a safe space for any visitor to discuss any conflict therein. And while I have no decision making authority within the university, I do provide insight and guidance to the university community under the office’s charge and charter. As such, I have an obligation to adhere to the standards of practice and assisting others in finding ways to resolve their conflicts. If these standards are not at the forefront of my work, I can no longer call myself an organizational ombuds as outlined by the profession itself. While these standards are central to my practice, sometimes visitors struggle with how I assist.
Students often request that I intervene on their behalf, but I am not a student advocate, I am an advocate for fairness, due process and justice (here is where I often feel like I have a superpower or alter ego). The goal is to empower visitors to act on their rights and responsibilities according to university processes and teach them skills of self-advocacy. As I refer visitors to the proper channels to address their concerns, visitors can sometimes become frustrated with understanding just what the role of ombuds is within the university structure. As a result, I make a concerted effort to help them understand my role and teach them skills of self-advocacy. I do not always work with individuals on their happiest of days, in fact, it is often quite the opposite. Certain situations do indeed call for intervention on the behalf of the visitor. In these cases, again, I am not a decision-maker; I often help to reframe the conversation for both parties so they may resolve the conflict on their own. That said, I hope that by the time they leave my office they have a better notion of what it means to be a citizen of a community and have gained skills in communicating effectively, whether student, faculty member or administrator.
I am often asked: “What made you want that job? Isn’t that just dealing with complaints all day long?” Truly, I could not think of a more dynamic place to affect student persistence than one that acts outside the typical university structure to ensure due process at all levels of the institution. Whether it is in discussing options with a visitor related to a perceived incident of discrimination that is impacting their academic progress; discussing a case of academic misconduct and the university’s philosophy that allows a visitor to take ownership of the decision/action that they made that prevents them from repeating that same mistake; or working with another visitor to ensure that their syllabus meets the guidelines set forth in the Code of Teaching Responsibility… in the end, it is about student success and persistence, as well as lifting the perceived barriers to that success and persistence. I do work with conflict each day… sometimes that means telling a student what they don’t want to hear and sometimes that means telling a faculty member or administrator what they don’t want to hear. Yet, keeping the vision of how it influences the campus climate at a systemic level keeps me encouraged and engaged.
That said, I will say that one of the hardest pieces of my job is that I am outside the system and need to remain neutral and independent. It often means making difficult professional choices and being ever conscious of where a conflict of interest may arise between my personal and professional connections within the university and the role of being an ombuds. It can, at times, be isolating… I am only one of two that does my job on a campus that is one in approximately 400 to offer ombuds services nationwide. I can only imagine what it was like for James Rust as he embarked on his career nearly fifty years ago as a pioneer in this field. However, the depth of history at Michigan State University and the community of academic ombuds, as well as the corporate and governmental sectors, stands to fill this void. My job is part student/academic affairs and part alternate dispute resolution.
Despite the occasional chill of isolation, I could not think of another role within the institution (or outside of it rather) where I would want to work. In an era where the disillusioned go to social media to have their voice heard, the Office of the University Ombudsperson offers an alternate option… one that can guide them to making a more informed and better decision to express their concerns within a large university bureaucracy… One in which individuals are offered a platform to have their stories and experiences heard… One in which individuals are taught the skills of self-advocacy, communication and dispute resolution… One in which due process and fairness is scrutinized and examined to ensure “expeditious settlement” within a large bureaucracy. In the end, I look forward to a day when individuals in our society no longer feel like “IBM cards” and hope that I was able to contribute in some small way to building dialogue and democracy.
This post is part of our #dayinSA series on highlighting the diversity of functional areas in the field of student affairs. We will hear from #SApros of all kinds – academic advisors, office mangagers, res hall directors, vice provosts of SA, and many many more. Each will share exactly what their typical day looks like, what exactly they work on, and what makes them want to come to work each day. We hope to squash stereotypes within the field and celebrate all the different kinds of great work that #SApros do. For more information, check out the intro post by Sara Ackerson. Be sure to read the other posts in this series too!