The University of Western Ontario

 

Annual Report
of the
Office of the Ombudsperson
2001-2002

Submitted to the Coordinating Committee for the Office of the Ombudsperson October 2002



 

CASES AND ISSUES

 

Presentation of Data

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'.

Interventions and Outcomes

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).

  • Student goal achieved in full or in part: 40%
  • Outcome unknown to Ombuds Office: 21%
  • Student goal not achieved: 20%
  • Student satisfied: 14%
  • Student did not pursue the issue: 5%
  • Outcome pending: 1%

Why don't we make more recommendations or intervene more often?

  • Many students come to us at an early stage: there are actions the student can take independently to resolve the issue (for example, appealing a decision).
  • Some students who are, on the face of it, being treated unfairly, do not want the Ombudsperson to intervene because they fear a worsening of their situation.
  • Written reports and formal recommendations are made only after a full investigation. In most situations, a more collaborative and less formal approach is used to discover what outcome would be fair under the circumstances.

How Long Do Cases Take?

  • Information cases involve providing information to the student but not discussing the details or merits of the student's situation. Typically, these involve one contact, and 90 percent of such cases conclude on the day they were initiated.
  • Advice cases involve hearing in some detail about the student's situation and suggesting options, advice, or strategies. Sixty-eight percent of these cases conclude on the day they were initiated. The outer limit in the current case year was 340 days, and the average time for advice cases was 8.48 days.
  • Intervention cases involve action by the Ombuds Office apart from giving information and advice. Twenty-five percent of these cases conclude within the first five days; and 58 percent within 15 days. The average number of days between initiation and closure is 31. The file open the longest in the current reporting year was open 266 days.

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.

Understanding Decisions and Decision Making

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.

Recommendations:

  • A student making an appeal should provide documentation in support of a claim about medical or extenuating circumstances whenever possible.
  • Before an appeal or request for relief is denied, a decision maker ought to ask the student to provide documentation if possible.
  • Whenever there is an issue of credibility, a decision maker should ask the student to provide documentation if possible.

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:

  • A student submitted medical evidence because it was available, though her need for academic accommodation arose for another reason (which she disclosed when her initial request was denied).
  • A decision maker took into account a finding that a student had committed a scholastic offence and applied a different standard in considering whether to admit that student to a program for which his marks qualified him. (Following intervention by the Ombuds Office, the student was admitted to the program in question.)

The importance of an impartial decision maker

Being impartial is challenging. Among other things, it means

  • Paying close attention to all the evidence;
  • Not discounting what was said by someone of lesser status because of that lesser status. (Thus, it may mean being open to the possibility that a colleague is not being truthful.)
  • Not being in a conflict of interest, or stand to benefit from the decision.
  • Acting consistently and in conformity with pre-established criteria, rules and policies.

Fair process

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.

Recommendation:

    Everyone in a designated role (undergraduate chair, graduate chair, Associate Dean, etc.) should provide in advance for a designate to act in his or her stead in the event of a conflict of interest. The name of this designate should be made available routinely to all students who could be affected.

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.

Delays

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.

Recommendation:

    Whenever it is impractical for policies to state time frames for specific actions or decisions by University faculty and staff, units should have internal policies or goals regarding time frames, and should communicate those time frames and goals to those affected. When a delay exceeds the expected time frame an explanation for the delay and an apology for the inconvenience caused should be provided to the party.

Cases Involving International Students and students from whom English is a second language

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.

Examinations

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.

Recommendation:

    Programs should consider how to make their curriculum and assessment processes fairer and more welcoming for international students. Expecting international students to behave exactly like students who grew up in a Canadian town is not realistic.

Bullying and other misconduct by those in positions of authority

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.

Some possibly helpful strategies for academic administrators:

  • Keep records of complaints and act on patterns. Try to shift the burden of solving the problem from the victims to the institution. Human resource specialists know there is something wrong when turnover in a position is excessive. If many students drop a course, read the message. Do not let an easy explanation ("this is just a really tough subject") be an excuse for inaction - look critically at the situation.
  • Do not give a position of power to someone who is suspected of being a bully. Be frank about why he or she is not being considered for the position. Offer incentives for change. Talk to his or her strengths. Remember, it is tough to change.
  • Be respectful to students who complain about a colleague's behaviour. If complaints seem justified, offer real remedies, so the costs to the victim are reduced.
  • If you can persuade the victim to write a statement describing the behaviour and its impact to give to the subject of complaint, that may help him or her choose to change. Or decide to apologize for the distress he or she has caused. The power of an apology should not be overlooked.
  • Such people nearly always have some champions. Do not be fooled. Do not say, "Why some people think Professor X is just fantastic...." While this is fortunately true, it is of no comfort to the targeted victim of the day.
  • You can probably think of reasons why X behaves as she or he does. Or reasons why you would rather not rock the boat (X has big grants, a national reputation, etc.). These reasons do not make it fair for X to treat others badly.
  • Refer students or others affected for help. Make it as easy as possible for them to go for help. Offer to call the Student Development Centre or other support service to see if they can get an appointment quickly. Refer them to the Ombudsperson, Equity Services, or other appropriate resource.

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.

  • A student in a professional program complained that a faculty member wrote a letter to the program chair about him. He said the letter was filled with inaccuracies and he believed the faculty member's real intention was to hurt and humiliate him. He claimed that the program chair agreed the letter was 'questionable'.
  • A student in a work-study program complained that her supervisor was unprofessional and abusive. She claimed she would be told to do a task a certain way. Her supervisor would then complain that that was not how she wanted the task done. If the student spoke up for herself, she was yelled at. Her supervisor also made personal and judgmental comments about her.
  • A student who went to see a decision maker about a decision complained that the decision maker was arrogant and condescending and reduced her to tears.
  • Several graduate students complained about supervisors habitually making sarcastic or demeaning remarks about them in front of others.
  • There were complaints about those in authority who used the silent treatment as punishment.
  • Occasionally faculty and staff complained about particular students being very demanding, rude or disrespectful. One such student recognized that she was indeed in the wrong, and apologized for her behaviour.

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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