The University of Western Ontario

 

Annual Report
of the
Office of the Ombudsperson
2002-2003




 

CASES AND ISSUES

 

WHAT IS A CASE?

A case file is opened whenever the Ombuds Office is contacted for information or advice by a student, parent, or a faculty or staff member. During busy periods, we do respond to some quick questions without opening a file. It is hard to estimate how many such contacts go unrecorded in a year.

When the party contacting us is seeking information but does not tell us much about his or her situation, the case is categorized as an "Information" case. Most information cases involve one contact on one day. When the Ombudsperson is told enough about a person's situation to be able to comment meaningfully on the specifics, it is classified as "Advice". Typically, "Information" and "Advice" cases do not involve contact between the Ombuds Office and anyone else, other than the person seeking advice. When the Ombuds Office intervenes, the case is classified as an "Intervention" case.

WHICH STUDENTS USE THE OFFICE, AND WHY?

Gender: almost an equal number of men and women used the office (314 female, 311 male and 7 gender unrecorded).

Age: fewer than 2 percent of students completing the intake sheet were under 19 years of age. Forty-five percent were 24 years old or older, and the remainder (fifty-four percent) were between 19 and 23.

Came to office because

  • suspected treatment unfair - 32 %
  • needed advice re rights and responsibilities - 42%
  • complaint about another person - 10%
  • other reason - 16%
Constituency
Table 2 shows the caseload by faculty of registration of the student. Eighty-four percent of students using the service were undergraduates, 14 percent graduates. The remaining two percent were from continuing studies or distance studies. Of the undergraduate students, eight percent identified themselves as Affiliated College students, while 21 percent did not identify their faculty of registration.

REFERRALS TO AND FROM THE OMBUDS OFFICE
Those who complete our intake sheet can answer a question about who suggested that they consult the Ombuds Office. Fifty-four percent of the reported referrals are from university or college faculty and staff. The balance are from fellow students (30 percent), and family members and others (16 percent). In turn, the Ombuds Office made over 400 referrals:34 percent to academic counsellors or departments; ten percent to external agencies (e.g., Ontario Housing Rental Tribunal and Ombudsman Ontario); two percent to student associations; nine percent to Community Legal Services or Housing Mediation Service; three percent to Equity Services; and the balance (42 percent) to other university services such as the Office of the Registrar, the Department of Housing, and the Student Development Centre.

Scholastic Discipline Policy
The Policy on Scholastic Discipline and Academic Sanctions was passed by Senate in November 2002 and replaced the earlier Scholastic Offences Policy. One of the salient features of the new policy is providing the student with "a reasonable opportunity to respond and submit evidence, and a reasonable opportunity to meet with the Chair [or other decision maker] before a decision is made." Another is the timing of decisions and appeal steps. In the old policy, these could overlap, causing some confusion. In the new policy, overlaps are consciously avoided.

Several cases came to the Ombudsperson's attention in which one or another of the procedural requirements was not met, as illustrated in some of the following case summaries.

Case A
What happened

A student was accused of plagiarism on an essay, following an originality report from Turnitin.com. The student claimed that her instructor had told the class that certain material did not need to be acknowledged. She believed that that material was the reason for the damaging originality report. She met with the Chair to show him where this advice was recorded in her class notes.

The Chair did not want to look at the class notes. He said he had made his decision already, and thus the student's recourse was to the Dean.

What should have happened
The Chair should have looked at all the evidence the student brought forward on her own behalf and considered it prior to making a decision.

What the Ombudsperson did in this case
Reviewed the University's procedural obligations with the student; reviewed the student's letter of appeal; and, as an impartial observor, attended a meeting between the student and the Dean.

Outcome
The Dean investigated and confirmed the student's claims of procedural irregularities. The Dean set aside the finding of a scholastic offence, despite believing that the student had plagiarized. The student was permitted to write another paper and passed the course.

Case B
What happened

Statistical analysis suggested that there had been cheating of some kind between two students on a midterm exam. Both students were sent an email advising them they could challenge the evidence by a certain date by arranging to meet with the instructor. Both students did this, but ultimately the undergraduate chair found each student guilty of an offence.

Student A, an international student who had appealed the chair's decision immediately, had to return home for the summer before receiving a response to his appeal to the chair. He emailed the chair from home but heard nothing until his return to London in early September, when he found a letter dated July 10 which stated, "Both you and Ms. B claim not to have cheated. You each appealed your grade to the department level. I have examined your cases, and I cannot conclusively determine which one of you is telling the truth. Therefore I am upholding the professor's decision, and I am leaving your grade as an F...." The letter advised the student he could appeal to the Associate Dean, and went on to say: "Perhaps an appeal to this level will uncover the truth."

Student A appealed to the Dean. When the Dean refused to consider the appeal on the grounds that it was too late, student A came to the Ombudsperson.

What the Ombudsperson did in this case
The Ombudsperson agreed to review the file at the Dean's Office for two reasons. First, the student claimed all correspondence with the instructor had been by email. The midterm had been in early March and he had appealed promptly. If the chair had sent the response to the appeal by email, too, the student claimed he would have appealed promptly to the Dean.

The second reason I agreed to review the file was because of concerns about the substantive decision. In the case of a scholastic offence, the burden is on the officers of the University to show evidence that an offence took place. The chair's letter suggested that that burden had not been met. The chair seemed to be saying either Student A or Student B might be not guilty, but he, the chair, could not determine who.

Outcome
It turned out that the two students had sat side by side during the midterm. It was indeed possible that one or the other was not guilty.

Determining who is telling the truth is a huge challenge. Decision makers are correct to recognize that. At the same time, it is essential to be fair. A decision maker must consider all possibilities, and that may mean putting him or herself in the position of a student. A student who is not guilty has no way to prove he did not do what he did not do.

I met with the Dean and pointed out that 1) there had been significant delays in handling the appeal at the department level; 2) the student had been out of the country but in email contact, and there was no reason to not send the decision by email as well as regular mail; 3) the Dean had the power to set aside the appeal deadline and there seemed good reasons to do so in this case; and finally, 4) there was lack of evidence to support a conclusion that the student had probably cheated. The Dean concurred with this analysis and the student's appeal was granted.

The Challenge of Making Decisions on Student Appeals and Requests

Bias in decision making
Both students and decision makers are quick to assume bias on the part of the other. I spend a good deal of time with students pointing out that assuming the instructor or Chair or Dean is biased is not appropriate without evidence. I spend time with decision makers pointing out that assuming a student is biased is likewise not appropriate. Now I am going to put forward the idea that there is pervasive (though not malicious) bias on all sides. There are a number of underlying causes: a tendency to think adversarially, in a we-them mode; a need to see things in simple terms; and resistance to looking at things from different perspectives*. How can this pervasive tendency to bias be countered?

Hear all sides.
An impartial decision maker needs to put herself in the other person's position. I was fortunate enough to attend the lecture given last November at the Faculty of Law by the Chief Justice of Canada, the Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin. She was asked how Supreme Court judges maintain their impartiality. She said she practices "conscious objectivity," which she explained as 'forcing yourself to stand in the position of each party, and really meditating and thinking about it.'

Take everyone's story seriously.
Sometimes a student's account is rejected without a good reason. Example: a first year student was ill for an exam and tried to arrange to write the make-up. He was in constant communication with his instructor who, like the student, was new to the University. His instructor told him he would email him the date of the make-up as soon as he knew it. In fact, that did not happen. A make-up took place, but the student missed it. The Dean's Office denied the student permission for another make-up on the grounds that he had not followed the procedure, and should have been checking with the Academic Counsellor, not the professor. In making its ruling, the Dean's Office discounted the evidence the student provided, which included all the email exchanges with his instructor, substantiating his account. After intervention by the Ombudsperson, the Dean's Office reviewed the matter and the student was permitted to write a special exam with later section of the course.

Resist imputing motives.
Be open-minded. A particular decision maker became somewhat jaded after dealing with a high volume of student requests. In assessing evidence, she actually misread some dates on an admittedly confusing foreign document. As a result, she denied the student's appeal. In explaining her decision, she said she believed the student had neglected to renew a passport just so his return to Canada would be delayed and he would have more days to study for an upcoming exam. As evidence, she said the student had submitted documentation which did not support his claims. When we studied the documentation together, it was clear that she had misread the dates, and that the documentation did support his claims. His appeal was eventually granted.

Be accountable - give reasons for decisions.
A student who required only a small number of courses to complete her degree planned to move back home and take courses at the university in her home town over the summer. It was important to her to be at home (she had a job and a family there) and it was important to her to complete her degree in the summer (she was entering a program in the fall for which it was a requirement). But the Dean's Office denied her permission to take her remaining courses anywhere but Western. And Western did not offer the courses she needed in the summer. The only reason given for not granting permission was: "We never do it for fourth year courses." I was assured it had never been done, but the rule was not stated anywhere, which meant, in effect, that it had never been debated and approved by the University Senate. I found this reason for denying the request was not adequate. I recommended that, in the absence of better reasons, the student be granted permission to complete her coursework as proposed.

Avoid lengthy delays.
A number of decisions took an exceptionally long time. While delays are understandable when a decision maker must seek information from a variety of sources, in other cases delays resulted from the decision maker's workload and the priority she assigned to the issue. Delays do not save time. In fact, they can cost time, since a problem is put aside and then must be reviewed when taken up again. And delays are never appreciated, or seen as respectful.

Seek evidence to help you make a fair decision.
An instructor was sympathetic to a good student who had performed poorly on a particular exam. The student explained she had a history of migraines and had experienced the onset of one during her exam. She was able to provide proof of her medical history, but not of the onset of the migraine during the exam. However, she claimed she had never had an academic result as poor as the result on that exam - it was roughly 30% below her other grades in that course and significantly below her usual performance. The instructor said he would consider the student's request to reweight the poor exam if he had some proof that the student's claims about her other grades were true. She provided that evidence, and the instructor reweighted the exam, which increased her final grade significantly.

What students can do.
Students who find themselves disagreeing with decisions or grades can often be proactive in understanding how the decision was made. Review any applicable policies. Look for the larger purpose behind the rule (purposes are rarely stated, but they are there!) Imagine: if you were the decision maker - what would you need to think about?

Situations involving students with disabilities

Several situations arose over the year involving students with disabilities. Although the situations were all quite different, in my opinion they point to a gap in the understanding of policies affecting such students, and a gap in understanding the role of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD).

Students with disabilities have requests which are sometimes only in part or incidentally related to their disability. The role of SSD should be seen as facilitative but not as limiting student communications with an academic program. If SSD is cautious about commenting on a situation or making an outright recommendation, that should not be interpreted negatively unless it is clear that the matter is covered fully by the Policy on Academic Accommodations for Students with Disabilities.

There are two other important points that need to be made. First, there is a general expectation that students will learn to manage their academic commitments better over time. Although this expectation makes sense for many, it may not make good sense when a student is dealing with an unpredictable chronic illness; in the process of having an illness diagnosed; or going through the trial and error process of finding appropriate treatment for a condition.

Second, while a student may have had a number of accommodations made, finding the right level of accommodation can be a challenge. Moreover, accommodations do not mean the student's disability has been made to go away. Consider the student who, because of a disability, needs a longer time to read and write, and gets extra time on an exam. That same student will need to budget extra time in all other circumstances involving reading and writing, too - it will take her or him longer to do emails, quizzes, labs, assignments, and to read textbooks and papers.

Burdensome requirements.
A student with a chronic illness realized she needed to withdraw from school as her health had deteriorated. She saw her academic counsellor, and was advised that it was too late to drop a first term half course without special permission. The student agreed to write a letter and provide documentation, however she did not follow-up. Nor did the Dean's Office contact the student when there was no follow up. As a result, no courses were dropped. When the student's fee account was sent for collection, the student was prompted to take action. By that time the Dean's Office required documentation for all courses, despite an academic counsellor's notes that the student had come in to drop courses before the deadline (with the exception of the one half course). The notes read: "She feels like she's been hit by a train. Says she can barely get out of bed most days, let alone do coursework. Must drop everything." The student was willing to pay for the one half course in the end, and, in my opinion, should not have had to provide documentation for the other courses as her original request had been timely. This case prompted me to investigate further, even though from the student's perspective the matter was resolved.


* A particularly thoughtful discussion can be found in "Judgmental Biases in Conflict Resolution and How to Overcome Them" by Leigh Thompson and Janice Nadler. This paper is in Deutsch, Morton and Peter T. Coleman (eds.), The Handbook of Conflict Resolution - Theory and Practice, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Next Page Back to Table of Contents