From Sesame Street to Stimson Hall, University Ombudsman Charles Walcott Ph.D. ’59 has a lifetime of experience as a mediator –– a background he says has proved invaluable to his role as an arbiter in a community full of disputes.
Walcott said he sees about 300 staff, faculty and students each year who bring a wide range of issues — including grading, administration concerns, disagreements between people and personnel complaints — to his office.
Walcott — who served as the University’s dean of faculty from 2003 to 2008 — said that since the Ombudsman Office is independent from Day Hall, he and his team of Assistant Ombudsmen are able to maintain an unbiased perspective to the issues they address at the University.
“There is possibility for retaliation at all levels, and this pertains all up and down the chain of command,” Walcott said. “The virtue of coming here is that we are nonjudgmental, familiar with the University and its procedures and people. We are in a position to offer suggestions as to how to proceed and get out of the pickle you’re in.”
Nonetheless, Walcott said he believes that the parties involved in these kinds of disputes respect the Ombudsman system of mediation.
“I sense remarkable good will from all sides, from the University administration to the president to the provost and various vice presidents,” Walcott said. “Everybody wants the place to work, and they support the Ombudsman’s office because they feel that we help people navigate the complexity that is Cornell.”
Walcott noted that there is no typical complaint that comes before the Ombudsman.
“Dealing with students’ complaints about grades are probably some of the easier issues,” he said. “We often deal with bosses who are unsympathetic or who make what workers think are unreasonable demands. If you are an employee and say to a boss that you think they are being unfair, you are opening yourself to retaliation. Employees are often hesitant to confront [their boss] in a constructive kind of way and a lot of problems we see stem from that kind of issue.”
Still, Walcott praised what he called the University’s openness to dialogue with its faculty and students.
“Cornell is unusual with its approach to administration and planning,” Walcott said. “The administration is more collegial, with more give and take as they listen to the undergraduates and the faculty. You have a certain opportunity to participate and that is not the case at most universities.”
Walcott has not always served as the University’s peacekeeper. Before becoming the Ombudsman, he dedicated several years to science-related education, consulting on Sesame Street episodes, working in public education reform and holding several positions at Cornell.
Walcott served on the Elementary Science Study Committee from 1960 to 1967, helping to develop a new standard for elementary school science education that he said “allowed students who normally sit in the back to participate in discussion and observe through logic and rationale.”
“I’ve always [been] interested in the bigger picture of public education and science,” Walcott said. “I was involved with Sesame Street and 3,2,1 Contact on PBS for older kids in late ’70s. I had always wanted to do a science program to show kids what is exciting about science in the world around them.”
In 1974, Walcott also helped create PBS’s popular educational science program NOVA. He went on to direct Cornell’s Ornithology Lab in the ’80s and early ’90s, and also served as the chairman of the board of directors of the Ithaca Sciencenter from 1999 to 2001.
In 1981, Walcott came to Cornell as a full-time faculty. He went on to lead the Division of Biological Sciences between 1998 and 1999, and the Department of Neurobiology Behavior between 1999 and 2001, before becoming the dean of faculty in 2003.
These experiences working in both education and science, Walcott said, have helped him tackle some of the challenges of being an impartial Ombudsman.
“Probably the most useful thing we do is listen and encourage [the parties involved] to talk and think about what they could do in this situation,” Walcott said. “We remember that we only hear one side of the situation, and there are ways to go about approaching the problem that are more effective than other ways. Collectively, we’ve all had a lot of experience in dealing with human interactions, which is what the problems invariably come down to.”
Although mediating issues in the community is not always an easy task, Walcott said that the experience has helped him develop a stronger appreciation for the Cornell community.
“The most rewarding part is when you get an email or a note and someone says they are grateful, they felt comfortable, [that] we resolved the situation and that [it] would not have happened without you,” he said.
Ultimately, Walcott said, his role as Ombudsman –– and the opportunity it gives him to observe firsthand the challenges faced by many Cornell students, faculty and staff –– has given him an enlightening perspective on the community as a whole.
“When in danger, and when in doubt, come and see the Ombudsman, and we will try to help and point you in the right direction,” Walcott said. “Whether it is psychological counseling at Gannett or employee services, we are aware of solutions and can be helpful.”