CASES AND ISSUES
Data in this report are grouped somewhat differently than in the past, to better reflect institutional organization. Explanatory notes at the end of the report provide brief definitions of some of the terms used to identify issues and problems. The tables answer basic questions about our caseload: Who uses the service? (see Table 2, Constituency of Client, and Table 5, a breakdown of the Graduate Student caseload); What are their issues? (see Tables 3, 4, 6 and 7); What does the Ombuds Office do for them? See the columns headed 'Info', 'Advice' and 'Intervention'.
We are often asked how often our recommendations are accepted by those in authority. The question invokes a picture of a student who has been unfairly treated, and a resistant and authoritarian bureaucracy which must be persuaded to do the right thing, a picture to some degree fostered by our own literature. Our Memorandum of Agreement specifies that the mandate of the Ombudsperson is "to investigate....any problems or complaints or grievances of a student with regard to any aspect of university life." This picture is misleading.
Our data shows we intervene in about 12% of cases. The converse is that in 88% of cases we do no intervention. Our data do not break down "intervention" - but intervention means any contact with parties other than the student. Intervention includes a phone call to ask when a decision can be expected; accompanying a person to a meeting; fact-finding; as well as discussing a decision with a decision maker. Only a small number of interventions result in recommendations.
But, to return to the question: are our recommendations ever accepted? The answer is Yes, they are. Listed below are the outcomes we recorded for all cases last year in which we intervened. It includes those situations in which a recommendation of some sort was made - sometimes just a suggestion that the decision maker reconsider after information has been clarified. Outcomes are mutually exclusive - where "student satisfied" is used, it indicates that although the student's initial goal was not achieved, he or she gained something (often a better understanding of the reasons for a decision).
Why don't we make more recommendations or intervene more often?
It would be a mistake to think that we work away on each open case each day, every day. While we act as expeditiously as we can, our own role is limited, even in intervention cases. Use of our service is voluntary. A student may return after a considerable lapse of time to update us and seek more advice or assistance with an issue.
In the Ombuds Office we spend quite a lot of time explaining to students how academic decisions are made. However, it is not only students who may have erroneous ideas about decision making - unfortunately, decision makers themselves are often not as clear as they should be about how to be fair.
The importance of documentary evidence
University policy spells out that documentation is mandatory when a student must miss a final exam (see "Absences Due To Illness" in the Academic Information section of the Calendar). This same policy allows for discretion: "Instructors may, at their discretion, require medical excuse certificates...." This discretionary policy can work to the student's disadvantage in an appeal situation. Even when the student's own account of an illness or injury is not doubted, the impact of the illness or injury may be misinterpreted by the decision maker in the absence of documentation from a qualified professional.
In my opinion it is not good enough to say that it is the student's responsibility to make the case. While that is true, it suggests an adversarial rather than a collegial approach to academic decision making. It is in the interests of both the student and the decision maker to base decisions on as much relevant evidence and information as is available.
Evidence needs to be relevant
Both students and decision makers sometimes rely on evidence which is not relevant. Examples:
The importance of an impartial decision maker
Being impartial is challenging. Among other things, it means
Appeal processes typically go up the line. Who to go to if the designated next person has a conflict of interest is often not made clear. This is particularly critical in graduate student cases, but the same problem has arisen with undergraduates appealing grades, and with professional program students.
Someone who has been involved in making a decision cannot hear a formal appeal of that decision. They can reconsider their decision, but this does not count as an appeal.
Decisions need to be made in a timely way. There have been some excessive delays in some cases involving accusations of cheating and plagiarism. There have also been excessive delays in the grading and return of student work and in the handling of grade appeals. Delays can cause the individual to feel disrespected and stressed, and can burden him or her in ways unforeseen and unimagined by the decision maker.
Reminder: identifying details have been modified or eliminated in all references to cases. In some cases the Ombudsperson heard only one side of the story.
Discrimination in the classroom
A student for whom English is a second language reported that when he raised his hand in class, the instructor was either sarcastic or ignored him. Fellow students agreed the instructor's behaviour was discriminatory and offensive. The student quit the course, but wanted to take some action to protect others in future. He was also distressed because he would have to make up for the missed course and this would increase his costs. I discussed his options and goals, pointing out that the discriminatory behaviour he described is contrary to policy, and that Equity Services is a resource to which he could go in confidence.
Misleading information led to funding shortfall
Several international graduate students approached the office because they had received misleading information from their programs about funding. The letters and emails, which were not copied to the Faculty of Graduate Studies, stated erroneous amounts for tuition and other costs, and in one case encouraged the student to believe that more money would be available in later years. The Ombudsperson discussed the problem with one program and with the Faculty of Graduate Studies and recommended that they work together to find a solution. Graduate Studies made contingency funds available on the basis of need to the affected students. The Ombuds Office intends to follow up with the Office of the Registrar, in hope that clearer information about graduate fees as well as the living costs for a year of study can be provided on the Graduate Studies and Registrar websites.
Refunded by mistake
Another international student, here on exchange, had a problem with the University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP). She inquired where she needed to go to opt out of the Health Plan and was directed to a line-up in the University Community Centre. Thus, she opted out of the USC Health Plan instead of the UHIP. Mistakenly (since visiting exchange students are not included in the USC Health Plan), she was issued a refund cheque for $95.00 a couple of months later. At that point she realized something was wrong - she knew the UHIP fee was over $200.00. And by this time, she had missed the deadline to opt out of UHIP! After a number of discussions with different people the matter was sorted out. The USC agreed to make its information clearer in future, so no one would have to go through what this student went through.
Some examinations require a great deal of reading on the part of the student. For students whose first language is other than English, this can pose a problem. Often people read more slowly in a second language than in a first language. The large amount of reading may mean that the student simply does not have enough time to demonstrate what he or she has learned.
I am not suggesting that international students be given extra time for their examinations. I am suggesting that the time allocated for any examination should be sufficient to allow students to demonstrate what they have learned.
What happens at Western and the Affiliated Colleges when those in positions of authority bully others?
People imagine the Ombudsperson knows the answer to such questions. I keep hoping there are answers I don't know, things I don't learn, things I never see - because what I do see can be quite disappointing. I see the burden of dealing with bullying (and other forms of misbehaviour) falling largely on the most vulnerable - students, and sometimes staff.
Let me be clear. I have been at several other academic institutions and seen the same thing at every single one. My colleagues all across North America have also seen the same thing. The failure to deal with bad behaviour - bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, and other forms of disregard for rules and norms - is a system problem. It is, perhaps, the dark underside to academic freedom and collegiality. But is it fair? Absolutely not. It is seriously unfair to the students and others who are victims of misbehaviour, day after day, year after year. And it is unfair to the colleagues of the offender, who feel helpless and perhaps guilty for failing to manage the problem. Anyone who can find an effective way to deal with bad behaviour which does not compromise academic values will be doing an enormous service.
Examples of complaints of mistreatment in 2001-02
Reminder: personal information has been omitted or modified to protect identities. Moreover, in most cases below, the Ombudsperson heard only one side of the story.
Impact of bullying on the victim
Persons who have been bullied, whether once or repeatedly, report a
loss of interest and enthusiasm for their work; uncertainty about
their abilities and goals; and feelings of depression and withdrawal.
These feelings may lead to absenteeism and a decline in productivity,
and cynicism about the ability of the workplace to support them in
their educational or professional goals.
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