The Student Assembly unanimously passed a resolution Thursday to establish an Office of the Student Advocate, a student-run office which would provide counsel to students struggling to navigate Cornell’s administration.
If implemented, the Office of the Student Advocate would be comprised of undergraduate caseworkers who would help their peers with issues such as conduct violations, grade disputes, enrollment issues, financial aid problems, residency concerns, discrimination and harassment. The office will guide students to Cornell’s other administrative offices to handle their concerns, while offering advice and support.
“I’ve heard directly from students through testimonies how the University is failing to serve as an accessible contact point when their rights are being violated,” said Liel Sterling ’21, who co-sponsored the resolution with S.A. Executive Vice President Cat Huang ’21.
Sterling added that during the summer, many students she didn’t know had contacted her with concerns over issues ranging from Title IX violations to professors. As a result, she felt that an Office could serve as a direct point of contact for students mired in Cornell’s bureaucracy.
According to the resolution, the Office of the Student Advocate would include a student advocate, a chief of staff, a director for student and campus life, a director of academic affairs, a director of student finance and a slew of student caseworkers. The first student advocate would be appointed and confirmed by the S.A., and all successors would then be nominated by the outgoing office.
A student advocate would work with the S.A. on the office’s priorities, create training programs for staff members, monitor any data the office collects and facilitate relationships with other University offices.
The office will consist of directors who will specialize in particular issues. The director of student and campus life would oversee caseworkers handling issues like Title IX disputes or any other student-conduct related violations.
The director for academic affairs would supervise caseworkers dealing with issues of grade and enrollment disputes and professor conduct violations. The director of student finance will specialize in issues of financial aid and student employment.
Caseworkers will be supervised by directors. They will also handle student inquiries and direct students to the appropriate administrative office to handle their complaints. Sterling also said that she would want the Office of the Student Advocate to have a diverse staff of students from a range of backgrounds.
Since caseworkers would be students handling personal and confidential complaints, Nick Matolka ’21, undesignated at-large representative, expressed concern over training them.
“Would these students [be] handling confidential material — where is the accountability coming into play, in terms of if that breach of confidentiality is broken?” Matolka said.
Sterling said that while caseworkers will have to log student issues, the Office of the Student Advocate wouldn’t necessarily have the names of the students filing these complaints.
At the meeting, Sterling also clarified that students interested in joining the Office of the Student Advocate would not need to have a pre-law background, as the office will plan to provide extensive training in conjunction with Cornell Law students, the University and the SA.
But for students experiencing many of the issues the Office of the Student Advocate seeks to address, Cornell currently already offers a number of administrative functions — including the Title IX and financial aid office. Students also have the option to visit the Office of the University Ombudsman, a resource that allows students to confidentially and openly discuss any issues they may have with the University.
Tomás Reuning ’21, LGBTQ representative, questioned how the Office of Student Advocate would differ from the University Ombudsman.
But Sterling, for her part, believed that the Office of the Student Advocate would be more accessible for students as compared to the Ombudsman office.
“From what I’ve understood from students who have had contact with the Ombudsman’s office is that they do as much as they can, but sometimes, it’s not enough,” Sterling said. “I think that the Ombudsman’s office is useful for some things, like grade disputes, professors, but there are other offices in Cornell that are more specific to certain kinds of issues. [The Ombudsman’s office] is also not as clear as, say, the student advocate, that will directly deal with students’ rights.”
In a statement to The Sun, Linda Falkson, Ombudsman office director, maintained that the Office of the University Ombudsman had a neutral stance regarding the resolution.
“As a designated neutral, we advocate for fair and equitably administered processes but we don’t advocate on behalf of any individual in the organization nor do we enforce any rules or regulations or get involved in formal processes,” Falkson wrote. “We don’t advocate for or against resolutions or polices.”
Masa Haddad ’21, human ecology representative, questioned how the Office of the Student Advocate would help students not get “stuck in a cycle” when dealing with the administration.
Since caseworkers will be knowledgeable on all of the University’s offices and are meant to serve a direct point of contact for students, they will be able to guide students through any bureaucracy, Sterling stressed.