Ombuds Office welcomes students

Staff of two well-equipped to address complaints and concerns from the entire Concordia community.
September 15, 2011
By Tom Peacock

Concerns? Complaints? A good place to start is the university’s Ombuds Office. Last year, the Ombuds Office handled more than 400 cases, helping students deal with everything from grade re-evaluations to issues with an academic supervisor to tuition fee complaints. Concordia faculty and staff can also use the services offered by the Ombuds Office — last year they accounted for 15 per cent of all visits — though the lion’s share of visitors are students.

Ombudsperson Kristen Robillard explains that her office mainly provides information and coaching. “When there are means to address a problem, the objective is to provide students with the tools to engage in the process on their own,” she says.

The amount of coaching required depends on the nature of the case. Sometimes a solution is not clear-cut, and the student and ombudsperson need to brainstorm a solution together. An example Robillard gives is when a graduate student encounters a problem with a supervisor.

“We kind of play it out with them. We try to figure out how they can make their point while maintaining the relationship.”

Dealing with the situation this way means that the student learns valuable life lessons in conflict management. “You’ve got to know how to work through these situations, and whatever you learn in dealing with a professor, you’re going to be able to take somewhere else.”

Sometimes exceptional circumstances arise, and coaching is not enough. In such cases, the Ombuds Office has to go to bat for a student. “It’s usually because the student is in a difficult situation,” Robillard says. “It could be health related, disability related, family related; whatever stuff happens to people in the course of their daily lives.”

A typical situation is when a student cannot pay tuition fees in order to register. If the student’s personal situation is deemed to be truly exceptional, the Ombuds Office might make a suggestion to Student Accounts for an alternative payment plan that allows the student a bit of leeway.

“It’s all about fairness. We’re trying to see what would be a fair recommendation or suggestion to make a difficult situation better.”

The Ombuds Office does not have the authority to impose changes in university rules, policies and procedures. However, sometimes its recommendations end up having that effect. Robillard remembers when students came to the Ombuds Office asking for exceptions for writing mid-term exams because they conflicted with religious observances. “It wasn’t always easy for students to get an accommodation,” Robillard recalls. “We would try to intervene with the professor so they would make an alternative arrangement for the student.”

In the end, the university adopted a policy on accommodation for religious reasons for students writing mid-term exams. “We try to do something to help the student, and then broaden it, so it will be helpful for the next student that comes along.”

The Ombuds Office functions independently, and is authorized to investigate complaints in an objective way to determine whether the complainant was treated fairly. They have full access to documents, records and reports in order to do their jobs.

They are busy, but either Robillard or assistant ombudsperson Marie Berryman tries to see everyone who walks through the doors right away. After all, even if there are things a student can do to improve his situation, he may feel like his back is against a wall.

“This is a very large institution,” Robillard says. “It can be daunting.”

Related link:
•  Concordia’s Ombuds Office

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