Prof. Bruce Lewenstein, communication, is set to become Cornell’s 13th Ombudsman, according to a Jan. 25 vote by the University Assembly.
At the meeting, University Assembly Chair Brandon Fortenberry presented the assembly with a letter from President Martha Pollack appointing Lewenstein as Ombudsman. In the letter, the Ombudsman search committee — a four-person team including University Assembly Representative Duncan Cady ’23 and Dean of Faculty Eve DeRosa — cited Lewenstein’s vision, enthusiasm for the role and experience with mediation as deciding factors in their recommendation.
Lewenstein has been a professor at Cornell for almost 35 years. He has worked in the departments of communication as well as science and technology studies — where he recently concluded his seven-year position as department chair — in the Colleges of Agriculture and Life Science and Arts and Sciences, respectively.
Lewenstein earned his B.A. at the University of Chicago, where he served as Student Ombudsman during his senior year. He then went on to earn his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania before becoming an Assistant Professor at Cornell.
Lewenstein has also been involved in faculty governance, having served two years as the speaker of the Faculty Senate and four years as a faculty member of the Board of Trustees. Lewenstein said he believes that those experiences would aid him in his role as Ombudsman.
The Office of the University Ombudsman supports Cornell students, faculty and staff alike by directing them to campus resources and helping them mediate conflicts. Lewenstein’s team at the Office consists of three staff members, including office director Linda Falkson ’86 and Assistant Ombudsman Tracey Brant ’84.
The Office handles between 300 and 400 visitors per year, according to Falkson. Lewenstein stressed the Office’s commitment to neutrality, confidentiality and informality.
“We have no authority, we have no power,” Lewenstein said in an interview with The Sun. “It’s entirely our ability to help.”
Lewenstein succeeds Prof. Emeritus Charles Walcott Ph.D. ’59, neurobiology and behavior, who served as Ombudsman for 10 years. Falkson expressed gratitude toward Walcott for his work in the position and excitement in welcoming Lewenstein as her new colleague.
“I think that Cornellians who meet with [Lewenstein] are going to be really taken with his genuineness and his warmth,” Falkson said.
Walcott expressed delight at passing on his position to the new Ombudsman.
“He’s warm, cordial and friendly, and is somebody who can really be very helpful,” Walcott said.
Prof. Mark Sarvary, director of the Investigative Biology Teaching Laboratories — who collaborated with Lewenstein to spearhead the University’s science communication and public engagement minor — believed that Lewenstein’s thoughtfulness and communication skills would help him to succeed as Ombudsman.
“I hope he will use those science communication and public engagement skills he has been practicing, and has been a scholar of, for decades,” Sarvary said, “to bring people together and bring people’s opinions together.”
As Ombudsman, Lewenstein stated his goal to increase the visibility of his office, especially for students who have felt marginalized or left without sufficient on-campus resources. Walcott spoke out in support.
“I’m hoping that he has that magic wand that enables him to get the word out, and then also solve all the problems,” Walcott said.
Multiple students said they supported increased visibility for the Office, and that they were unaware of the resources that the University Ombudsman offers.
“The fact that none of us really know what [the Ombudsman] is feels a little bit concerning,” Myra Taylor ’24 said.
To increase visibility, Lewenstein hopes to speak to student and employee groups; host talks in the dorms; distribute flyers, brochures and quarter cards across campus; and even potentially create a blog with more information about campus resources.
Taylor and Matthew Ricketts ’24 also stated their hopes that Lewenstein would support students through mental health challenges. Ricketts expressed his wish for Lewenstein to use his position to foster inclusivity.
“I think there’s a huge socioeconomic gap between a lot of the students here at Cornell,” Ricketts said. “I would love to see some help to level out the playing fields there.”
Lewenstein’s renewable two-year term as Ombudsman begins on Feb. 1. In assuming the position, he joins the twelve previous Ombudsmen, including the first University Ombudsman Alice Cook, for whom Cook House on West Campus is named.
“They’ve really built an incredible tradition,” Lewenstein said, “and I hope to continue that strength.”
Correction, Jan. 28, 12 p.m.: The initial version of this article included an incorrect title for Duncan Cady ’23 in the Ombudsman search committee. He is the University Assembly Representative.