Saturday, September 30, 2023

Here to help

The Office of the Ombudsman works to smoothe out problems

September 11, 2007

Stan Soffin, MSU’s ombudsman for more than nine years, helps out any conflict in the classroom that a student or faculty member may be involved in.

Photo by Jason Chiou | The State News

In 1965, one MSU master’s student initiated a movement that changed the relationship between students and university officials.

His efforts, which spanned the course of two years, led to the creation of the Academic Freedom Report and the Office of the Ombudsman in 1967. This year marks the 40th anniversary of a more influential student voice on campus, but some current MSU students are still unaware of the office’s existence.

The ombudsman’s office serves as a tool where students can go to settle conflicts with any aspect of the university. All concerns received by the office are confidential.

“What we can do is tell them the procedure for appealing an allegation of academic dishonesty. We aren’t going to judge whether they did it or not – that’s not our job,” current MSU Ombudsman Stan Soffin said. “Our job is to tell them how to appeal the allegation and what rights they have to appeal the allegation.”

Soffin has been at MSU for 30 years, serving as Ombudsman for nine years, and said he decided to apply for the job for the opportunity to do something different to serve the university.

“If you are able to resolve a problem they are having it might mean the difference between graduation in May or December,” Soffin said. “It gives students a place to go in confidence to talk about issues and concerns and find out what they can do about it as young adults. We are going to put them in motion to fix these problems.”

Soffin, who would not reveal the name of the graduate student who sparked the idea of more student rights on campus, said the student began to publish a newsletter criticizing the administration, including then-Michigan State College President John Hannah, who was president from 1941 to 1969.

In retaliation, Hannah charged the student with violating a new university policy that required permission to distribute literature door-to-door in the residence halls, Soffin said. The student was denied readmission and then sued the university, he said.

The court decided to make MSU hold a hearing on the matter. The University Committee on Student Affairs released its findings three weeks later concluding the student had been properly denied admission.

After Hannah revealed the student would have been readmitted had he not sued MSU, some faculty became outraged, Soffin said. Eventually, Hannah offered the student readmission, but the student never reenrolled.

After this event, Hannah sought out the University Committee on Student Affairs to draft a report on students’ rights and responsibilities with special attention to freedom of expression.

This was the birth of the Academic Freedom Report, which includes the formation of an ombudsman’s office.

MSU became one of the first national universities to create an ombudsman’s office – the University of Michigan had a similar office created in 1971, four years after MSU.

Students searching for more freedom from the university also spurred U-M’s Office of the Ombudsman, said Robert Holmes, U-M’s ombudsman.

“I don’t know what the success rate is, but I define success as have I listened intently to a student or have I tried to put myself in their shoes so I can understand what they are feeling and the nature of their complaint,” Holmes said.

The Academic Freedom Report is one of the most significant pieces of legislation for students on this campus, Soffin said.

“They realized if they are going to give students rights and responsibilities there needs to be someone on campus to assist students if they believe their rights have been violated,” Soffin said. “That person has to be neutral, unbiased, impartial – not student advocates. It established an office to help students in particular resolve disputes they have with any part of the university.”

Carolyn Stieber, former MSU Ombudsman, had an important role in amending the Academic Freedom Report.

“Before the change was made, if a student won a grievance there wasn’t anybody to see that justice was carried out if it wasn’t done in good faith by the faculty member,” Stieber said. “And sometimes the faculty member judged to be unfair wouldn’t budge.”

Now, she said, if a faculty member won’t take action, the dean of the department will.

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The ombudsman office has spread to more than 100 universities in the country and other European and Australian universities, she said.

“It helps students who have been treated less than fair to have a office that will look into the matter and take the student’s side if at all possible,” Stieber said.

Last year the office had 1,720 contacts whether they were online, in person or on the phone. And in the first week of class the office had more than 1,000 hits on the Web site.

Communication freshman Maggie Kennedy said now that she knows of the office she is considering using it.

“I don’t have a problem with the faculty here so far, but sometimes I have a problem with the teaching assistants,” she said.

Kennedy said in class there were multiple times when the assistant would not know the answers to her math questions.

“Within the next couple of days they usually e-mail us with the answer and show us how, but that happens so often,” Kennedy said. “I wish I had someone to talk to about that.”

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