With more than 33,000 students, faculty and staff, navigating Cornell’s labyrinth of resources, organizations, and committees can be a daunting task for even its most seasoned veterans.
But for Cornellians struggling to break through the complexity, they need only turn to the University’s Ombudsman Office — a three-person office founded over 50 years ago to “directly help members of the Cornell community with issues that are affecting their life here,” according to its director, Linda Falkson, who works alongside Prof. Emeritus Charles Wolcott Ph.D. ’59, the formally-appointed University Ombudsman.
“Our door is open to all Cornellians to try and be a problem solver for whatever’s going on and to try to help people with their student life experience or their employment situation,” Falkson said.
The office, which services undergraduates, graduate students, faculty and staff, assists with a wide variety of issues — often including graduate students upset with their committee, professors looking to receive tenure, conflicts with an advisor or perceived unethical behavior, according to Falkson.
But what differentiates Cornell’s Ombudsmen from the University’s other support resources is its intense focus on “problem solving.”
“Say a student has a grade issue — and say it’s a really serious grade issue, like it looks like they are failing a class…or maybe on academic probation — they might benefit from counseling…which works at the emotional level,” Falkson said. “But what we’re about is asking, ‘ok so this happened, what’s your goal? How is this hurdle going to get in the way? Is there anything you could do?’”
Every year, the office assists around 400 individuals, though “each person might come in half a dozen times,” Falkson noted. While it serves a large number of students, an outsized portion of its cases come from non-faculty employees.
The office is a member of the International Ombudsman Association and strictly follows the group’s code of ethics: “confidentiality, informality, neutrality, and independence.”
In terms of confidentiality, the office is not allowed to disclose anything a person tells them against their wishes unless there is a risk of imminent harm or the office is required to by law.
They also do not take sides in any dispute, upholding their neutrality to best solve the problem presented to them.
“We’re informal, in that we’re not decision-makers, we’re a resource to try and help figure out options and informally figure out the pros and cons of options regarding a situation,” Falkson added. “And we’re independent …we report to the Cornell community and receive our funding directly from the President’s office.”
Both Walcott and Falkson have long had ties to the University, and often leverage their expertise and close relationships with school officials to help those that come to them with problems.
“Having been involved in university administration for some years, I can often help explain the process and help them strategize about how they might proceed,” Walcott said.
Walcott’s resume includes a long line of lofty Cornell positions — Director of Ornithology, Associate Dean of University Faculty, Dean of the University Faculty and Chair of the University Assembly — before finally being appointed University Ombudsman in 2011.
Falkson, who previously practiced law, served as Deputy Judicial Administrator for 10 years, where she adjudicated cases alleged to be in violation of the school’s Code of Conduct.
As a result, “we are familiar with many offices of the University,” Walcott said, “and so when somebody comes in with a problem, we can direct them one place or another.”
In more serious cases, the office can help advocate on behalf of clients, reaching out to appropriate administrators that could otherwise be harder to contact.
“We occasionally have times where people have been frustrated by the University, and as we talk with them, we become convinced they have a case, that there’s something wrong,” Walcott said. “And we’re then able to call a dean or a vice president…and suggest that they meet with the student.”
Oftentimes, an individual will go to an office and be turned away by the person at the front desk, Walcott explained.
When that happens, the Ombudsman’s job is “to pave the way for them to talk to some higher-up, who can then evaluate, or investigate or resolve a problem,” he said.
The job — which inherently involves working with people in difficult situations — is a labor of love, according to Falkson, who replaced an ombudsman who held the job for over 37 years.
“That’s really the essential element of being an Ombudsman,” she said. “You like people and are not afraid of the human condition…and to meet people where they are.”