CCA Votes To Recommend Ombudsperson Position

Gin Dumcius

In a quick and surprising move, the Campus & Community Affairs Committee voted to recommend the development of the position of ombudsperson on October 2nd, 2002, in the Wheatley Student Lounge at 2:30. The vote was cast partway through the Open Forum segment, after a presentation of research gathered by various members of the CCA. The motion was made on a “matter of practicality,” since Senator and Student Trustee Heather Dawood had to leave, and without her, there would be no quorum, and they would not be able to vote on a motion. Senator Paul Delaria proposed the motion, which was passed unanimously.

Senator Dawood, answering a question from Senator Paul Delaria said that the purpose of the “town hall-style” meeting was to pull together research and find out “who’s doing it, what defines it, and whether or not we have a need or place for [the ombudsperson position].”

Early on, Senator and Chair of the CCA, H. Todd Babbitt, stressed the importance of hearing what everybody had to say on the matter; “I want everybody who has an opinion to have the opportunity to say something.”

Senator J. Stone Laraway showed everyone a proposal for the “student advocate” position via a projector. Senator Laraway went over the history of the issue, stating that former senator Christopher Garner recommended the ombudsperson position during a September 2002 Senate Meeting, and Chancellor Jo-Ann Gora supported the idea. The CCA was then given the responsibility to define the “student advocate person.”

“I think it’s important also to note,” said Student Trustee Dawood, interjecting for a moment, “that Chancellor Gora offered her support. And she not only said that this was a great idea,she said that if the student body financially sponsors the idea the first semester…” the university would financially support the position thereafter.

According to the plan up on the screen, the proposed mission of the Student Advocate Office was to “provide confidential, impartial complaint-handling services for students, staff, faculty, and administrators.” A Student Advocate was “designated neutral/impartial dispute resolution practitioner..provides confidential and informal assistance to all university constituents… and located outside the ordinary line of management structure.” The Student Advocate would operate independently, have no formal decision-making authority, and would report to the Chancellor. It was stressed that the person would not be a member of the Student Senate or in administration. Confidentiality was stressed as well: a Student Advocate “will not testify– either for or against a user of the Office. This is absolute and non-negotiable.”

“We’re still in the development stages, and we’re going to continue in the development stages well until December. CCA will still be overseeing the plans for the ombudsman or the student advocate position. We hope to have ratified this proposal by next Senate meeting, Oct. 9,” said Senator Laraway, stating the schedule was subject to change.

During the Open Forum segment, ex-officio and former Chair of the Budget and Finance Committee Cathi Murray spoke up, suggesting a special election and commenting on the situation. “This is a student initiative that’s been delayed, and it’s been inappropriately delayed. It’s also been re-named,”she said, expressing shock.

“We have student advocates. We need a professional ombudsman,” she said. Murray went on to say she believed that the issue did not rest in the “realm of the senate any longer, I think it belongs in the realm of the student population, with who or whom will be the representative of them. I think it will be very easy to start the nomination process by October 7, over a special election process, and I will denote this as an emergency.”

In a sheet of paper handed out to everybody, she described the initiative to install a professional ombudsperson as, among other things, “dishonorably laden with personal agendas; destructive of the unity between our community of students… [and] disrespectful to the voice of our community of students.”

“I believe at this point the position is settled. I believe we should start the process. The nomination period begin at least five days after the first announcement. Then it can begin Oct. 7th. Then the nomination shall last at least five class days. The campaign period shall be at least five class days. We’re talking by Nov. 1, we have an administrative position, and a student voice, which reaches out and bridges out to our community. We need these bridges, we’re falling apart,” said Murray.

Christopher Garner also had a chance to speak. “We as students, and even in my own experience, are forced to often go to members of the administration to seek advocacy, and in doing so, there are a lot of other issues that we might not be aware of, or privy to, or more importantly, not able to control, that would put us in a position where our individuality–now when you have a problem, you’re a person. You’re not a statistic, you’re not a factor, it’s your life. But sometimes in administration we find a position where there are greater issues on the table… and sometimes individuals can be swooped into that wave and washed aside.”

“At some point, what needs to happen is that there needs to be a full-time person that’s there to deal with these issues. Because right now if you have student complaints, there are plenty of doors to turn to. The question is are they open, are they in their office, are they available, do they have time to meet you, can they fit in advocating your situation into their already very busy schedule? I don’t think these people don’t purposely put down our grievances. I just think these people are very busy. It makes sense to me that student complaints are important enough that there should be at least one person, at least one person that deals with student concerns and or complaints,” said Garner.

The purpose of the position, he wrote in a paper submitted to everyone, “is to provide students with the ability to have their concerns and grievances heard and responded to with expedience, provide the student government with an objective opinion on proposed policies, foster administrative accountability, and provide the administration with a refined sense of data to support perceived systemic problems and suggest policy measures to address those systemic dilemmas.”

“[The position]’s designed to be a stepping stone, not a resting place,” continued Garner, deeming the position incorruptible if it were a rotating one. He also backed keeping the name of “ombudsperson,” rather than “student advocate.”

The CCA adjourned shortly before 4:00pm, scheduling another meeting the next Monday to work out more details. The senators stressed the significance of students attending the meetings. “Please, if you feel like you’re not being represented, I think that’s been an issue, please come to some of these meetings,” said Senator Delaria. “I mean, I honestly want to represent students. If they have a problem, let’s get it to the right people, and let’s expedite. That’s our whole reason for being the Senate.”