EMU Information / EMU Resources / Pro Tips / November 12, 2014

Cutting Through the Red Tape

Or: What an Ombudsman is and How They Can Help You

 

Have you ever had a dispute you just couldn’t make any headway on? Perhaps you feel trapped in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. The Ombudsman is there to guide you out.

You may have never heard of an Ombudsman, but they are there for you. Defining exactly what an Ombudsman does is tricky, it can vary wildly from day to day. However, there are some key facts to remember: perhaps most importantly, they are independent. EMU’s Ombudsman, Dr. Chiara Hensley, is completely independent of any university organizations. She reports directly to the University Provost where she can make recommendations for changes in University policy.

“My lack of power gives me lots of power,”Dr. Hensley pointed out. “I am not beholden to anyone, so I can really look at things objectively. While I can’t technically implement anything on my own, my official recommendation carries a great deal of weight, straight to the top of the ladder.” Anywhere that she finds a system failure or area of policy that can be improved for students, she can recommend those broad policy changes and they are almost always enacted.

For example, in her first year here, Dr. Hensley encountered a great number of medical leave, late withdrawal and tuition issue appeals. These all went through separate processes that were unconnected. This could leave students very confused and not sure where to turn. For example, asking for medical leave tuition refund from the university once a certain point in the semester has been reached requires a great deal of paperwork. Before the Ombudsman got involved, it was very unclear what evidence was appropriate to bring before the committee, and this meant students would have to produce more and more paperwork, unsure if that would make for their last hearing. Now, the entire appeals process, not matter what the reason has been streamlined into only a couple of forms with clear definitions of what paperwork to bring to save great deals of time and effort for everyone involved, especially the student. “I think students complaints should actually mean something. If a student fights their way through all of the red tape and they shouldn’t have had to in the first place, then no student should have to go through the same experience. That is the kind of problem in the system itself I try to fix.”

While the Office of the Ombudsman loves to be able to tackle large systemic problems, most of their time is spent on individual students. It is from dealing with hundreds of individual cases. The most common type of case the Ombudsman deals with on a day to day basis are issues with Student Business Services and tuition billing. A close second is grade grievances. This is a great example of the kind of thing an ombudsman does.

Let’s say you don’t think you were very fairly graded in a class you were taking. After talking with the professor and getting nowhere, one potential avenue if you truly think the grade was unfair, is to visit the Ombudsman. She can walk you through the steps of filing a grade grievance. One thing she is quick to point out is, “professors are people too. They make mistakes on occasion. It is ok to ask for help in getting things resolved in a timely fashion with due process. While the bureaucracy can be a nightmare, it is there for a reason and there are clear steps to follow.” It is also important to remember that the Ombudsman is completely impartial, so there are times when the school is wrong and she will work to redress your grievance, but there are usually just as many times when the student is wrong, and she won’t be afraid to tell you.

With such a wide array of job responsibilities, it is important to remember  exactly what an Ombudsman can do for you, and what they can’t.

 

What can the Ombuds do for you?

  • Listen and discuss questions, concerns, and complaints of students about the functioning of the university, including policies and procedures, the actions of others, and unfair treatment.
  • Help students develop problem solving skills and promote critical thinking so that students will be better able to act on their own behalf in resolving conflicts.
  • Assist students in evaluating and assessing a variety of options to address their concerns.
  • Answer questions, help students formulate appropriate questions, and find others who can provide the correct answer.
  • Identify problems and conflict areas within the University and recommend improvements.
  • Make referrals for mediation, counseling, and dispute resolution services, and assists in creating a helping network for students.
  • Provide a safe and confidential setting where students feel respected and where they can be candid and forthright.

What the Ombuds cannot do for you:

  • Take part in any formal grievance process, hearing or judicial process.
  • Make administrative or academic decisions for any other part of the University.
  • Assign sanctions.
  • Give legal advice.
  • Accept official “notice” for the University about issues. If someone wishes to put the University “on notice,” that is make the University formally aware of a particular problem, we can provide information on how to do so.

 

The biggest thing to remember about the office of the Ombudsman is that they are here for you, one way or another. Even if you haven’t been helped directly by them before, procedures and protocols you use everyday here on campus are watched over by the Ombudsman. When asked when a student should come to her, Dr. Hensley said, at any point in you problem. I can help from the very beginning if you just aren’t quite sure where to turn, or if you’ve used every resource you can think of all to no avail. That is my job and what I’m here for.”

 

The office of the Ombudsman is open by appointment all week, and is located in 248 Student Center.


Tags:  Around Campus grievences Guide Help Kafka Nightmare Ombudsman Student center Student Services





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