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After 45 years, ombudsperson office still protects students

September 12, 2012

As the Office of the Ombudsperson celebrates its 45th anniversary this academic year, this year marks Robert Caldwell’s first full year as the university ombudsperson — a role he doesn’t take lightly.

“This is an important position,” Caldwell said. “One I feel like my life history really prepared me for.”
Caldwell is the fifth ombudsperson in MSU history and after officially taking the place of former ombudsperson Stan Soffin in January, Caldwell is doing his best to make MSU a better place.

The goal of the Office of the Ombudsperson is to help protect student rights at MSU, and about 70-80 percent of issues he handles are “academic problems,” such as a wrong grade on a test or other assignments.

The ombudsperson also deals with other issues such as housing, privacy and harassment.

MSU’s Office of the Ombudsperson — formerly known as the ombudsman — has been around since the 1960s and is the longest-running ombudsperson office among universities in the nation, Caldwell said.

In the ‘60s, Caldwell said the university was having trouble defining its relationship with students but wanted to be a “parental” figure for the students.

With that, the Academic Freedom Report, or AFR, was born. According to the Office of the Ombudsperson’s website, the AFR is a document that “spells out student rights and responsibilities, which the ombudsperson is charged with protecting.” Article 10 of the AFR created the Office of the Ombudsperson for MSU students.

Caldwell there were about 1,200 students who contacted him with issues last year. He said the highest number of students to contact the office in its history is 1,700.

“If you think each contact is an unhappy person with a problem, I would think that number would be better lower,” Caldwell said. “It’s hard to say I want more visitors because that means there are more people with problems.”

Mechanical engineering freshman Forrest O’Brien said he is glad such an office exists.

“A teacher can seem a little powerful and they’re in control of your grade so you don’t want to make them mad,” O’Brien said. “It’s nice having an ambassador to help solve your problems.”

Prior to being hired as the ombudsperson, Caldwell had been at MSU for 30 years, including three years as the associate chairman in the Department of Psychology and five years as the associate dean of the College of Social Science.

Juli Wade, the current chairperson for the Department of Psychology, has known Caldwell since she arrived at MSU in 1995 and said he is well suited for this new position.

“When he was in our department he provided great leadership,” Wade said. “He’s calm, thoughtful, well reasoned and not stressed out. The right man for the job.”

If students have any kind of problem, Caldwell said they can either fill out a form from the ombudsperson’s website or call the office at
(517) 353-8830.

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