Lily Croskey-Englert / Sun Staff Photographer

The University Assembly discussed the office of the ombudsman on Tuesday.

February 14, 2017

University Assembly Member Calls for More Activism from Campus Ombudsman

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The ombudsman’s office presented its annual report to the University Assembly for review Tuesday, eliciting a proposal from one U.A. representative that the ombudsman take on a more active role in representing student and employee interests at Cornell.

The ombudsman’s office is a resource center that offers conflict resolution strategies to Cornell students, staff and faculty, according to Linda Falkson, the office’s director.

“We meet one-on-one with people and try to improve the student life situation and the working situation for faculty and staff,” she said. The office frequently deals with what she called “sticky issues,” such as office politics, microaggressions and tenure disputes.

Falkson added that the ombudsman’s office is not involved in mediating conflicts, nor does it provide legal advice or conduct investigations.

All services are confidential, and the office is obliged to release visitors’ information only if a court issues a subpoena or if there is an imminent risk to someone’s safety.

“If, for example, there is somebody who reported sexual predation, that’s clearly imminent risk, and what we would want to make sure is that is reported to the appropriate authorities so action can be taken,” said current ombudsman Charles Walcott, professor emeritus. “That isn’t that we will be investigating it — we just need to make sure it will be investigated.”

After the report, faculty representative Martin Hatch, professor emeritus of music, proposed expanding the role of the ombudsman, suggesting that the office could act as an ally for students, staff and faculty in disputes with University administration.

“If there was a problem of student protest, or faculty involved in a political protest, could the ombudsman’s office intervene in a way that would assist someone in protecting their rights to exercise their constitutional rights?” he asked Falkson and Walcott, adding that there is no other office on campus that could provide this role.

But Falkson maintained that office’s charter restricted the ombudsman to what she called an “organizational” role, and Watt’s added that the role is “not quite as activist as [Hatch] described, and yet it’s not passive.”

The Cornell ombudsman’s charter of ethical principles states that the office “does not participate in any formal investigative or adjudicative procedures,” nor does it “make binding decisions, mandate policies, or formally adjudicate issues for the University.”

But Hatch called for a more active role for the ombudsman’s office. The ombudsman — who is “embedded in the university fabric” and “knows the quasi-legal structure of the university, the administrative, student, faculty, graduate and undergraduate levels” — can help Cornellians in ways that outside counsel could not, he argued.

“It makes sense for there to be somebody who can actually…‘investigate and attempt to resolve complaints and problems between students and a university,’” he said, citing a Googled definition of an ombudsman, which he said differed from the organizational role described by Falkson.

U.A. chair Gabe Kaufman ’17 pointed out that Cornellians have access to judicial codes counselors, who provide students, staff and faculty with free legal assistance for violations of campus rules.

“I don’t think the judicial codes counselors completely fill that role,” Kaufman said, “but I think [the judicial codes counselors] serve as advocates on behalf of students and sometimes staff and faculty who are accused of violating the campus code of conduct, such as protesting.”

Hatch disagreed, saying there are many disputes on campus that do not pertain to the campus code of conduct. He called for the ombudsman’s office to offer counsel to Cornell students involved in disputes with administration and said he’d like to see the office go so far as to participate in mediation.

“Mediation is a valuable function, and I think going more in that direction is at least making an avenue for the ombudsman taking a role that is not present in the university right now,” he said.

The memorandum that created the ombudsman’s office in 1969 states the office’s principles “shall be subject to revision by whatever legislative body eventually emerges from the University.” Today, that legislative body is the U.A.

Hatch told his fellow representatives he plans to push for an expansion of the ombudsman’s duties “to include mediation, and verging on advocacy.”

“This being our purview, I think we could explore the notion of how one achieves reasonable solutions to problems or disputes on campus,” he said. “If I need to be the initiator, I’ll find a way of doing that.”

Faculty representative Edward Baptist, professor of history, said the U.A. will continue to deliberate over the role of the ombudsman in mediating on-campus disputes.

“If Marty’s going to bring a resolution, then we’ll talk about the resolution and see where that goes,” Baptist said. “We may hear more about that in future meetings of the U.A.”