March 24, 2003

Obscure Office Plays Key Role

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Ask a student at Cornell what an ombudsman does and they probably won’t have the right answer.

“The office is in Stimson,” said Lin Yang ’05, “so I thought he was in charge of taking care of trees or plants.”

Hilary Corsun ’06 gave a more common response, “I have no idea.”

Corsun came close though when she said that an ombudsman “tells you where to go when you need help.” The official definition of an ombudsman is “a man who investigates complaints and mediates fair settlements.”

Since its creation in 1969, the Ombudsman’s office at Cornell has been a place where students, faculty, and staff can go to discuss any complaints that they may have against Cornell.

Prof. Walter R. Lynn, civil and environmental engineering, who currently holds the position of University Ombudsman, describes the office as “a place where people can address their problems with the institution and utilize [this office] to help them try to resolve those.”

Lynn is the eleventh in a line of Ombudsmen that began with Prof. Alice Cook, industrial and labor relations.

The Ombudsman’s office is also staffed by Associate University Ombudsman Ronald Bricker and Assistant Ombudsman Danilee Poppensiek. Together with Lynn, they have over 20 years of experience in dealing with people’s complaints.

“They’re the smart people,” said Lynn. “They’ve been doing this job for a long time and they’re really good at it.”

The job consists mostly of helping the roughly 400 people who come to them each year to understand University policies and procedures.

“Who looks at that?” asked Lynn, gesturing to shelves full of policy notebooks. “It’s only when people get in some sort of trouble [that they read them].”

Over the years, the staff of the Ombudsman’s office has seen all sorts of trouble. They’ve handled concerns ranging from simple grade disputes, all the way to sexual harassment cases.

“Sometimes people bring in something that might take you just a minute or two to answer and then other times it might take you 3 or 4 months,” said Poppensiek. The staff has also seen many changes. For example, though the office has handled sexual harassment problems in the past, federal legislation now requires that those cases be referred to the Office of Workplace Diversity office.

While the Ombudsman’s office is a great source of advice and information about policy, it has no direct power to resolve problems.

“We don’t have the authority to say you have to do the following,” said Lynn. “Our procedure would be to tell somebody, whoever it might be, the University rules say you have to do the following.”

The Ombudsman’s office can also contact people on behalf of someone, but only if that person gives them permission to discuss their complaint with others.

Confidentiality is a very big concern for the Ombudsman’s office.

“We wouldn’t take any action unless we told the person what that would be and with whom that would be,” said Poppensiek. Similarly, anyone who comes to them with a complaint or for advice can rest assured that their privacy will be protected.

“Confidentiality is absolutely essential,” said Lynn. This belief is shared by all members of the office and comes up again and again in their brochure, on their website, and in speaking with them. However, the confidentiality only goes so far.

“There’s no way we can deny a subpoena,” admitted Lynn, but “that’s the limit.” However, the office keeps no formal records, so even if their records were subpoenaed very little would be revealed.

All three members of the Ombudsman’s office are more than happy to speak with any member of the Cornell community about any complaints or situations that arise.

“The office is here to help people,” Lynn said.

Poppensiek agreed, mentioning that one student had come in recently with a simple problem because he “just wanted to talk to someone” about it.

“I thought that was really a smart thing for him to have done,” Poppensiek said. “It’s too bad more people don’t behave in that way.”

Bricker encouraged people to come to the office. “Sometimes [people] really need someone to work [problems] through with who is uninvolved and hopefully can give them a little objective advice.”

Archived article by Courtney Potts