Ombudsperson-Are We Ready?

Natalia Cooper

At the first senate meeting of the fall semester there was a lot of discussion around the creation of a new position, a student ombudsperson. The conversation has continued throughout the campus during these first few weeks, mainly centering on a few key issues. What is an ombudsperson? Why do we need such a position and where did this idea come from? And, finally, how will the whole scenario go into effect if all the wrinkles are ironed out?

The idea primarily came out of the concerns of one student, Christopher (Chris) Garner, and as he began to identify why he thought the position was a necessary one, he realized that the idea ballooned into a possible solution to many areas of student concern.

“It’s a lot like the threat of a lawsuit,” Garner told The Mass Media, “you don’t always need to sue to get done what you need to.” He went on to say that, “we currently have no one that’s given the economic freedom to deal with just student problems.” Garner feels that “one has to ask oneself, inside of an institution, why not? Why don’t we have somebody who we’re giving the economic freedom to [deal with student problems].”

New Student Senate President Joseph Panciotti explained in a recent interview “the term ombudsman was coined in the 1800s in Sweden, it became part of the Swedish constitution.” He went on to say that in the original definition the position was a “person [who] investigates problems, complaints that there may be a social injustice to be looked into,” also an ombudsperson would be useful if “there may be something that can be arbitrated or negotiated or dealt with at a lower level than the president, or in our case, the chancellor.” Quite simply Panciotti understands the position as “being a facilitator, a doer, getting things done, to make our reality a more pleasant one.”

“At some point the student body needs to be presented with both sides of the issue, in a nutshell. Essentially, I see this position as a position that should be primarily autonomous in its agenda, responsible to the students and objective. This person should be investigative.” Garner envisioned the position as a professional staff position, available to an undergraduate or graduate student. He proposed that the position be paid to give the ombudsperson the economic freedom to address important issues.

All sides seem to agree that the position should either be paid or carry with it an automatic tuition and/or fee waiver. Chancellor Jo Ann Gora explained, “The student senate funds [the ombudsperson] the first semester. I fund it the second semester. There’s always the risk that whoever is funding it decides not to fund it in the future,” Chancellor Jo Ann Gora said.

Student Senate President Panciotti said, “I think it’s a major improvement, a major investment, and at the max it will cost us $10,000.” By investing that initial $10,000 the student senate would effectively be saying, “It’s absolutely necessary, we’re speaking with our dollars. Talk is cheap, money is hard to come by, but we think of this as a serious investment,” Panciotti said.

In Garner’s “The Bullhorn” column in The Mass Media, he wrote about the position’s importance, while also pointing the finger at parts of the administration, deeming them incompetent. He later clarified, saying “there are huge levels of incompetence,” but he said, “I don’t think the people themselves are incompetent, I think that their performance so far is incompetent.”

Garner also said that his point in the creation of this position “is that by allowing a student to enter into the serious debate, when the ideas are being formulated, right there at the starting gate, let that student and hopefully more students be able to have input on the policy level.”

So Garner went to the new Student Senate President Joseph Panciotti, who thought it was a good idea. According to Panciotti, he then suggested that Garner write a report and the two (Garner and Panciotti) would go over it.

But then, Panciotti says, the report Garner wrote went straight to Chancellor Jo Ann Gora. “The next thing I knew, the proposal didn’t come back to me to read,” Panciotti said, “next thing I knew [Garner was saying] ‘Oh, the chancellor loves it.'” Aside from personal politics between Garner and Panciotti, the position was proposed and many people seemed excited about the possibilities.

“Chris came to me and proposed the position, and asked me if I would support the development of a student ombudsperson position. I said yes,” Gora explained. She described the position as someone “who represents a group of people and tries to collect systematic data on the issues and concerns of that group of people.”

She continued, “The emphasis is on systematic data and that’s the hard part of the job. It’s easy for you or I to complain about something, or to be pissed off at something, it is much harder for you or I to hear somebody else being pissed off, or complaining about something, and then figure out if it’s a systemic problem that needs to be resolved or if it’s just an unfortunate happenstance or accident or unique situation. What an ombudsperson should be doing is really figuring out where the system is not working and that requires good judgment, it requires a good understanding of the university, it requires a willingness to be systematic in your data collection … this is not a position to be taken lightly, this is something that needs to be thought through carefully and the person who holds the position needs to be very serious about it.”

When he finally saw the report Panciotti did have an initial criticism of its contents. “It was not so much a proposal,” he said, “but rather a criticism of a particular department, under a particular vice chancellor, everything from that vice chancellor down to the lowest paid eight dollar an hour [worker] behind the ticket counter in Student Life.”

But even with criticisms and wrinkles in the initial stages of the proposal, it seemed like everything was in the works, and then things started to get a little stickier. The proposal and the preliminary development of the position both occurred over the summer, which meant that there was no active student government, no student centers, and barely any students to approve or disapprove of the position. Also, certain areas of the administration, particularly the office of the Dean of Student Affairs began to say that the creation of a student ombudsperson would infringe on their responsibilities in the administration.

When asked what he thought about different people, university-wide, coming out questioning the need for this position and saying, “Hey, that’s my job,” Garner responded, “What I really want to say is, if it’s your job, then how come the students are coming to me telling me that it’s not getting done? If it’s so many people’s jobs, what you’re either telling me is that you’re either not doing your job, or you don’t have enough time.”

Another of the more unpleasant points in this whole debate has been the accusation that Garner is creating a position for him to fill. Regardless of whether or not that is the case, in response to accusations of “shameless self-promoting,” he had the following to say; “My major concern surrounding this issue is that the long-term policies that this is designed to help, it does. And the issue of who gets the position and who doesn’t really need to go on the back burner because the position itself is more important than any of us serving it.”

Chancellor Gora said, “If the student senate believes we need this position, then we need this position no matter who else believes they hold this position. So that has been my position, and I am waiting to see what the student senate does.”

The development of the ombudsperson position is currently being researched by the Campus and Community Affairs Committee (CCA), part of the Undergraduate Student Senate.

The chair of the CCA, H. Todd Babbitt, explained that he couldn’t allow the development of such a position to move forward unless he knows what the students think. Because, Babbitt said, “If it is not supported by students it is a useless entity.” That is not to say that Babbitt disagrees with the position, he merely wants to do more research before fully supporting the position. “If students want it,” Babbitt said, “we want to make sure it happens as soon as possible.” For now, the CCA has their work cut out for them. CCA has set a deadline for their research and development (which will include a broad reaching student survey) to be completed. They hope to submit a report to Director of Student Life Joyce Morgan by October 31. Babbitt also added that he doesn’t believe in “back-room politics” and he hopes that if it is decided that the position is something students want he hopes it will “last years, if not decades.”

What Happened When We Weren’t Here?

During the summer months, the newly elected Panciotti was faced with a tough decision regarding the ombudsperson position. Should he create an executive order calling for the creation of such a position, or should he wait for the student senate to come together once the fall semester began? He decided to go ahead and create an executive order, but then yet another glitch kept the position from going into effect immediately: a meeting mishap between Dean of Student Affairs Stephanie Janey, Ombudsperson hopeful Christopher Garner, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Angeline Lopes, and Senate President Panciotti himself.

As one could expect, there are different versions of that meeting’s events. According to Panciotti, “the meeting disintegrated.” Dean Janey said that the meeting was “a moment in time, and we moved beyond that moment.” Garner admitted that the meeting did not go as smoothly as he had hoped, but maintained that he was resisting becoming yet another administration “yes-man,” something which he feels happens to UMB student leaders all too regularly.

All the stories agree on one thing, this was a meeting that did not go particularly well or as planned. Due to the events of that meeting, Panciotti nixed the idea of an executive order because an “executive order should only be used in absolute life and death emergency, and until that meeting fell apart I was willing to go forward with an executive order, I was willing to do that, it did not become necessary,” he also admitted that he “wouldn’t have done it with great enthusiasm”