The University of Western Ontario

 

Ombuds Office
Annual Report
2003-2004




 

CASES AND ISSUES

 

All cases are described so as to protect the identities of those involved. This is in keeping with the Ombudsperson's commitment to confidentiality. In some cases, an astute reader who has had contact with the office will recognize his or her situation. Please remember that some details may be varied on purpose to protect identities, and that summaries of any person's experience inevitably seem to distort it.

SUPPORT SITUATIONS

"Advice" cases account for 57% of our cases. In these situations the individual is supported through information and advice but no intervention takes place. Approximately one-third of advice cases involve more than one contact with the student, and in some cases, many contacts. What is the value to such students in coming to the Ombudsperson? I used to wonder about this myself. I have come to believe that what most students appreciate is the opportunity to be heard and understood, while being left free to make their own decisions.

Typical support situations

  • A professional program student felt unsupported by the supervisor in a placement. She worried about failing. She experienced anger, disappointment, frustration and loss of self-confidence. "No matter how hard I try, or how much I do, all I get is flak. Never a thank-you, never anything encouraging!" The student even began to doubt her choice of field, though she was close to completing the program. This student saw the Ombudsperson on five occasions over a period of several weeks. (She passed the placement and will graduate.)
  • A student believed a grade on a final exam was undeservedly low. He met with the instructor, but disagreed with the instructor's comments on his work and maintained the grade was not consistent with other grades received in similar courses during his university career. The Ombudsperson outlined the steps in the grade appeal process, discussed various concerns the student had regarding how he might be perceived if he appealed, and encouraged the student to contact the office if he needed to discuss the matter further. This student was seen only once.

Many "intervention" cases also involve advice, information, role play, problem solving, venting and reframing of issues. Here is an example:

  • A professional program student failed to meet the progression requirements and was required to withdraw. A health problem had plagued him throughout the program. Not only the student, but his parents, too, had many discussions with the Ombudsperson about the extent to which the program had accommodated the medical problem, the appropriateness of the program's decision, how the appeal process worked, and what he could or should do under the circumstances. Eventually the student appealed. When the appeal was denied at the Dean's level, the Ombudsperson reviewed the decision. New medical evidence became available and was considered by the Dean's Office, but the decision remained unchanged. When the student's health continued to be problematic, he decided not pursue the appeal further. This case involved many contacts over a period of several years.

WHEN THINGS GO WRONG

Sometimes the University makes mistakes. A few people believe that the University should never make mistakes, and therefore should pay a very high price when it errs. This is not the view of the Ombudsperson. Mistakes, unfortunately, occur in every life, and everyone, as they say, is "entitled" to make them.

However, there is an appropriate way to respond when it can be shown that a mistake has occurred. I am impressed with the forthright response from some areas of the University, for example, the Office of the Registrar. The following case from Student Financial Services is just one example of their approach.

Late Fee A student was charged a late fee of $100 when he did not pay an amount owing from summer tuition until receiving his fall OSAP payment. He appealed, explaining that he had spoken to Student Financial Services prior to the deadline and been told his payment plan was acceptable. He waited more than a month for a response to his appeal, then queried the matter in person and learned the appeal had been denied. However, his appeal form could not be found, so Student Financial Services was unable to give him a reason for the decision, since only the decision, not the reason for it, was available on the computerized record. He was told a letter would have been mailed to him with the decision. He said he had never received a letter. He wondered why he hadn't been sent an email instead. He completed a new appeal form, as was suggested, and came to the Ombuds Office because he believed he was entitled to be told the reason for the decision. The Ombudsperson queried Student Financial Services to find out how late fee appeals were decided.

Eventually the student's original appeal form was found (it had been misfiled) and it turned out the letter he should have been sent had not, in fact, been sent at all. The student emailed me to say: "Today in the afternoon, I got one very kind phone call from the Student Financial Services office....She apologized sincerely on the phone and I accepted her apology." The student was satisfied with this outcome. However, a few days later there was even more good news his appeal was successful after all, and the $100 penalty was reversed.

The Irish Office of the Ombudsman has a document on its website (www.ombudsman.ie) entitled: "Redress Getting it wrong and putting it right" which states: "Explanations and apologies should include the following:

  • the reasons why the public body got it wrong;
  • an apology for any hurt, inconvenience or hardship caused;
  • an acceptance of responsibility for the fault which has occurred;
  • an undertaking to make good any loss which may have resulted;
  • an acceptance that, where time limits apply, any undue delay on the part of the public body will be discounted where possible."

TIPS FOR STUDENTS

Email We see many emails from students, both those addressed to the Ombuds Office and those addressed to others, for example instructors and academic counsellors. And we hear about many emails that students or others have retained, and about many others which students have not saved. Most individuals seem to manage email without problems, but these suggestions may be helpful.

  • For communicating with offices at the University or College, use a UWO email account in preference to hotmail, yahoo, etc. Reason: with increased spam and filtering devices, some messages do not get through.
  • Use a brief, straightforward and descriptive subject line, so your message won't have a chance to look like spam.
  • Avoid slang, and be as respectful in your email message as you are in person. Don't hit the "send" button in the heat of the moment.
  • Save email exchanges about issues which are ongoing and of importance to you for example, an academic appeal or request.
  • Check your email regularly and also "my UWO".

Academic obligations If you treat your academic program like a job you want to keep, you are much more likely to be successful in it! If you're going to be absent, it is a courtesy to report in. If you cannot meet a deadline for a good reason, alert those who need to know in advance. Registering for courses isn't just agreeing to pay the tuition it's agreeing to do the work.

DIVERSITY ISSUES

A student who is older than the average student said one instructor had told her she didn't understand what he'd asked for "because she's old". Our practice is to put flags on cases when certain issues are raised. Anything which sounds like it could be discrimination or harassment on a prohibited ground is flagged as an equity issue, and the individual is routinely informed about the mandate of Equity Services or the equivalent service at an Affiliated College.

Situations last year involved allegations of student to student harassment, faculty member student harassment, discrimination on disability grounds, and hate literature.

MEDICAL NOTES

In the course of a year countless students fall ill, many around tests or exams, and instructors, chairs of departments, academic counsellors and deans are put in the often difficult position of having to decide whether a student's medical documentation is adequate or not. How do you decide whether to permit a special exam to a student whose note simply states: "Student seen today in clinic for medical reasons"? In other cases, medical letters go beyond what is strictly useful, and try to tell the University what to do. Here are two examples of situations involving medical notes.

  • A student missed an exam. He claimed he was ill and had seen a doctor at Student Health Services; the note from SHS stated that, despite mild symptoms, the student was not too ill to write an exam. The student appealed, but in vain: no special exam was permitted.
  • A student with a disability registered with Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) and provided documentation as required. The doctor wrote a note to accompany his report, and in that note recommended that the student "preferably be exempt from examinations, but, where examinations were essential, that he be allowed unlimited time". These were not the accommodations which SSD concluded were most appropriate for this student SSD has never recommended a student be exempt from examinations, nor does it normally recommend unlimited time as such. As may be imagined, the student was unhappy when SSD proposed different accommodations. It was difficult for the student to accept that SSD was not bound by the doctor's recommendations, and that the accommodations SSD did propose were reasonable.


Next Page Back to Table of Contents