For the past 50 years, one campus resource, now nestled in an unassuming Stimson Hall office and staffed by two former Cornell students, has been on a mission: solving problems by “meeting people where they are at.”
Founded in the wake of the 1969 Willard Straight Hall takeover — which saw students pitted fiercely against the administration during 36 hours of turmoil — the Ombudsman was a position created as a part of the University’s efforts to mend broken ties and provide a neutral outlet for Cornellians to express their concerns.
Although the issues, demographics and campus climate of Cornell may have changed significantly in those five intervening decades, as the Ombudsman celebrates its half-centennial, its basic goal has proved enduring.
Fundamentally, “we are a trusted source that if people are feeling a certain way … we are a confidential and safe place where people can ask, and talk, and be heard,” said current director Linda Falkson ’86, who serves alongside Prof. Emeritus Charles Walcott Ph.D. ’59, the formally-appointed University Ombudsman.
“We are here to help figure out, ‘What’s my place?’ ‘What’s going on?’ and ‘What, if anything do I want to do if I’m not feeling comfortable in this space?” Falkson continued.
While the office’s visitors are comprised mostly of “non-academic staff,” according to Falkson, in 2018 it counseled over 330 academic employees, undergraduates, graduate students and others on a wide variety of issues — including employment disputes, grade concerns, academic advice and disciplinary issues.
A defining feature of the office’s support services is its strict commitment to the International Ombudsman Association’s code of ethics: “confidentiality, informality, neutrality, and independence.”
That model of providing advice and mediation has proved particularly popular among other universities: When Cornell’s Ombudsman was first founded in 1969, only two years after Michigan State University was America’s first to do so, it was among only a handful; today, at least 400 schools offer similar services operating under that same four-principle credo that puts impartiality above all else.
But, most importantly, what the Ombudsman can offer is a commitment to pragmatic problem-solving, focused on cutting to the core of one’s concerns and marshalling the best resources available to fix them, Walcott explained.
After taking the time to fully understand a visitor’s goal — whether it be a professor trying to make tenure or a graduate student struggling to with their Ph.D. — the focus then shifts to “finding the best mechanism to achieve that goal,” according to Falkson.
“The process is that you come and sit with your back to the window so nobody knows you are here and you get a little speech about what the office is,” Walcott explained. “And then I say ‘how can I be helpful?’ And you tell your story and I listen … and then I try to rack my brain and think about ‘what would I do?’ and ‘what are the options available?’”
Such a process is repetitive, and sometimes involves proposing a range of suggestions or making introductions to “higher-ups,” who could otherwise be harder to contact, until something finally sticks.
“Often we end up with three or four things they might try and I always say at the end, ‘now if this doesn’t work’ please come on back and we can continue working at the problem.” Walcott said. “We’ll try to find Plan A, B, C or D.”
The two-person office’s ability to help Cornellians navigate what can often prove to be a complex labyrinth of committees, administrators, resources, departments and colleges stems from its lengthy ties to the University, where both staff members once attended as students.
Walcott, who received a Ph.D. in zoology from Cornell, has served as 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 worked as a prosecutor for the City of Ithaca, 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.”
Beyond seeking to resolve visitors’ personal conflicts, the office also works to make University administrators aware of growing issues through, what Falkson called, “upward feedback.”
“When we see a systematic problem, we go to a person in a position of authority, such as a dean or vice president, and we articulate what we see as trend in the issue, and, to the extent possible, suggest an improvement,” Falkson explained, though Walcott stressed that such a process is focused on preserving confidentiality and does not “reflect back on any of our visitors.”
But even as the Ombudsman office continues to handle a growing diversity of issues and conflicts from a population of students and employees that now numbers well over 33,000, as much has stayed the same as had changed since its founding.
“When you look at the annual reports from 50 years ago and now, not incredibly different in terms of problems, issues,” Falkson said. “And that’s because the human condition isn’t all that different, back then or now.”