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When senior Reid Hogan failed to do an assignment his professor told him he was “throwing his life away”.
Hogan was putting capstone papers and design work before a general education freshman-level class, but his professor misinterpreted his actions.
“I was trying to tell him that I didn’t do the assignment because at the time I had a million other things that were more important that I was doing,” says Hogan. “I was prioritizing, and he took that to mean I didn’t believe in work. And so I had a very personal conflict with this professor for the rest of the semester.”
But it didn’t have to end this way.
What Hogan didn’t know at the time is what most Principia College students don’t know: there is person on campus in a role they’ve never heard with a name they can’t pronounce, specifically devoted to resolving these kinds of grievances – the student ombudsman.
“The ombuds-what?” is almost the universal response when students around campus are asked whether they’ve heard of the ombudsman. The word has its roots in old Norse and one broad definition given by Merriam-Webster is, “one that investigates, reports on, and helps settle complaints.”
Currently, Kristin Halsey, whose office is located in the Academic and Career Advising Center in the School of Government, holds the role. Yet, in her three and a half years as ombudsman, she says she has dealt with less than 20 disputes.
So is Principia just a very harmonious place, or are there many problems that might be resolved by a visit to the ombudsman?
Alice Batista recounts a time in her junior year when she struggled with the way a professor was teaching a class and was concerned more broadly for her fellow students. She approached someone, who she requests remain anonymous, believing they were in a position of authority to help resolve issues, but they only pointed her back to the professor. In the end she just gave up.
If she knew about the ombudsman, would she have sought help?
“Yes, I wanted to resolve [the issue] and do something, but I didn’t really know where to go to and if it was worth it, unfortunately,” Batista says. “Another thing that I also think is important, is not only that people know who this ombudsman is, but also that the person in that position is someone who the students can trust.”
Talking with Halsey, her gentle, warm and empathetic nature comes across as the trustworthy type Batista says she needed at the time.
“First of all, they can expect someone who will listen,” Halsey says. “I am, to a fault, empathetic. To a fault! I am the one who can put myself in someone else’s shoes and say, ‘Wow! I totally get that, I understand, we need to work on this.’”
Halsey added, “Often we do some metaphysical work together. Not that I’m a practitioner, but that’s a support and it’s a way of approaching problems.
“I would like to think the [mediation] is a principled process – that I don’t take sides, but rather that I’m trying to hear. There are always two sides to a story.”
What’s the process?
Halsey says that while the majority of grievances she deals with are academic – normally a dispute or misunderstanding between a student and professor – her role as ombudsman extends to hearing social struggles a student may be facing.
Generally, the ombudsman is there as a next step after the student has gone through other channels provided for dispute resolution. One first expectations is that a student exercise the biblical Matthew code. This is the process wherein a person talks directly with the other individual they are in dispute with, and if that doesn’t resolve the issue, they approach them again, this time accompanied by someone else familiar with the conflict.
On social issues, Halsey says students often find resolution by talking to a resident counselor, the Home Life Manager Reid Charlston, or the Dean of Students Debra Jones, who she says do great jobs.
But if the student still feels aggrieved after they have exhausted these channels, or if for some reason they don’t feel they can’t go through them, then Halsey is available in her role of ombudsman.
“If it’s a professor issue then they’re supposed to try to approach the professor. Sometimes if it’s a very sensitive issue they might not feel comfortable doing that, and my role is really that neutral third party, to take in the grievance, and then say ‘ok, [let’s] start with the informal process,’” she says.
“[The process is] completely confidential, so they can feel free to talk about anything, and it doesn’t go anywhere outside this office unless that person says, ‘Okay, lets go to the next step,’ which is typically having a meeting with the person with whom they have a grievance and me, to hear both sides and hopefully work to a resolution.”
Halsey says there’s only been once during her time in the role when a situation has escalated to the formal process. This involves the filing of a written complaint.
Nikki Campbell created the ombudsman office in the 1990s. Originally based in the Writing Center (now the Center for Teaching and Learning), it was designed to create a safe, neutral and confidential space for students to come and air grievances, which would otherwise go unresolved.
While Halsey says she has some colorful stories, she cannot share them, being bound to strict confidentiality so that any parties that come to her have peace of mind that whatever they share won’t go further.
So what could Hogan or Batista expect if they went to visit Halsey in her role as ombudsman today?
Hopefully resolution, but if nothing else, “A shoulder to cry on,” she says with a compassionate chuckle.
To find out more or contact the student ombudsman visit: http://www.principiacollege.edu/current-students/academic-career-advising/student-ombudsman