At its last meeting on April 16, the Graduate Student Assembly introduced a new proposal to support funding a full-time student ombudsman, a professional position. This is a great step forward for students who need to vent their grievances to a neutral third party.
The University's ombuds offices help students, faculty and staff. The mission of the Office of the Student Ombuds is to provide a neutral, impartial and confidential environment for students to voice concerns related to life at the University and to provide information and assistance to students who have University-related questions or complaints.
The appeal of this establishment is its role as an impartial third party. The credibility of the office rests on its reputation for independence, fairness and objectivity. The fact that the Office of the Student Ombudsman does not side with individuals, the University or any other parties involved creates trust between students and the institution.
Disputes the office hears cover issues as wide-ranging as grades, academic dismissals and student employment concerns, to name just a few. Every dispute almost invariably carries criticism of academic officials in the department or the school policies.
The amount of compliance at UT has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2013-2014, the OSO served 1,400 students. The fall 2014 session saw a 77 percent increase over the previous fall semester and a 114 percent increase over the fall of 2012. The students the OSO serves include undergraduate, graduate and professional students.
The tension between universities and students is surely timeless, but it started receiving serious attention in the late 1960s. The occurrence of a series of incidents at Hornsey and Guildford Colleges of Art, Birmingham University and the London School of Economics led universities to develop coping strategies to deal with student protesters questioning the character, purpose and management of higher education. Now, with issues related to abuse of power, bullying, intimidation, nepotism, etc., firmly planted on everyone’s radar, action needs to be taken to make sure students are being heard and protected.
At the OSO, the current staff includes one part-time student ombudsperson and two part-time assistant student ombudspersons. The only full-time staffer in the office is an administrative associate, who is not a student.
“The biggest criticism of the office was, and continues to be, that there is no continuity of service because a new student is hired every year and comes to the position with only a vague idea of how to carry out the role,” former ombudsperson Amber Holloway said.
Not only does it take the office a lot of time to train new staff, but it also causes the organization to look disjointed.
The proposal presented by GSA recommends adding the full-time ombudsperson to the existing staff. This new professional will provide coaching and training on dispute resolution skills and facilitate constructive discussions between parties who use the office’s services. By doing that, students can expect a more effective conflict resolution procedure.
Liu is an advertising graduate student from Beijing.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated since its original posting.