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%
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Be accountable - give reasons for decisions.
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
Seek evidence to help you make a fair decision.
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.
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,