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The Office of the Ombudsperson is located in the University Centre. Photo: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum

Office of Ombudsperson recommends better communication of rights in sexual violence cases, creation of resource roadmap

In its ninth annual report for the 2018-19 academic year, the University of Ottawa’s Office of the Ombudsperson offered a number of recommendations to improve how specific issues or concerns are resolved on campus, including better communication of rights, supports and processes for parties involved in sexual violence cases and the creation of a resource roadmap for all students.

“Students might be looking for information about (their) rights, (their) responsibilities, and how to use what mechanism,” said Martine Conway, who has been serving as the U of O’s ombudsperson since 2018.

According to Conway, the office is responsible for dealing with the more severe cases that occur on campus that require more formal investigation and review. In some instances, she said that the office will intervene in a situation and help to problem solve. 

“The student might be looking for advice or coaching …  Or we can look into information and try to clarify information, or we can investigate in some situations when the student has exhausted other options,” she said.

Between June 2018 and May 2019, the office processed service requests from 650 individuals, which includes 335 students and 36 employees. The year before, the office had processed service requests from 575 individuals.

“For students, for example, there were 153 academic issues,” said Conway. “In terms of academic issues, we typically see questions around academic fraud evaluation, students who don’t agree with that grade … It could also have to do with passing or not passing a placement, or progression for graduate students.”

There were six prominent issues that the office observed that year, each coming with their own set of recommendations for the school to help address them:

  1. International students: identifying and solving problems proactively
  2. Graduate students: supervision and accommodations
  3. Policy 67b – Prevention of Sexual Violence: communication of rights and options, coordination of services
  4. Normalization of grades: clarification of “definitions of student performance”
  5. Workplace: mental health and conflict resolution tools
  6. Decisions of the Senate Appeals Committee and faculties: communication of reasons

“What’s unique about an ombudsperson’s office is that it’s structured to be independent, impartial,” said Conway. “It can bring that kind of lens —  that independent perspective — back onto the campus to try to help this campus improve. That’s the goal that we have in the work that we do.”

International students: identifying and solving problems proactively

According to the report, several international undergraduate students contacted the office at the end of their programs to raise concerns about unreported issues that they had experienced during their time at the U of O.

“The two most problematic situations included an allegation about racism and another about psychological harassment over the course of the students’ studies,” reads the report.

The report then identifies a number of different reasons why an international student may not proactively address any issues that they experience.

“They include a lack of knowledge of available resources, a lack of understanding of the processes to follow, cultural differences related to the relevance of discussing a student-professor relationship with a third party, fear of asking administrators (academic advisors, program directors, academic offices) about options without assurance of confidentiality,” states the report.

The office of the ombudsperson’s recommendation to resolving this issue is to create a generic roadmap that can guide all students, revolving around the theme of “I have a problem, whom do I contact?” 

“(This) would identify the main offices for administrative and academic matters affecting all students, as well as academic support services, and the offices to contact within and outside their faculty to resolve conflicts and address complaints,” reads the report.

Having such a roadmap, Conway said, would help all students navigate through the different processes that come with resolving an issue.

“There are many (issues), so there’s a lot of information in different places,” she said. “What students are looking for is something that more directly (will) let them know (they’re) in that situation, and (they can ask) ‘Where do I go now?’”

In the university’s response to this recommendation, the administration said that a roadmap for international students would be established at the beginning of the 2019 fall semester. 

“Its mandate will be to assess the information for international students already available in the various sectors, determine what other information should be included, and consolidate it into an electronic format that is easy for students to navigate,” the administration wrote in their response.

Graduate students: supervision and accommodations

Several master’s and doctoral students raised a number of supervisory issues to the office that occurred during the preparation process of their thesis projects, according to the report.

“We also met students who found themselves very isolated during the writing of their thesis, and others who experienced difficulties or delays after a change in thesis supervisor,” reads the report. “Finally, we received inquiries from staff in two faculties seeking guidelines and tools to assist with the early resolution of conflicts between professor and student.”

The report found that due to differences in practice among academic disciplines, there “are no university-wide regulation or guidelines specifying the responsibilities of students and thesis supervisors in the supervisory relationship.”

When problems do arise between the student and their supervisor, the report said that it isn’t clear to students what resources are available to resolve disputes before they become more serious.

The recommendation that was put forth by the office to resolve the problem suggested that a regulation or policy be developed that clarifies and outlines the responsibilities of the parties in a supervisory relationship.

“In particular, it is important to clarify the minimum expectations for the role of thesis supervisor regarding the frequency of interactions and feedback; the resources available to students and thesis supervisors when problems arise between them; the role of other parties, such as other committee members and program directors, in resolving problems; and the responsibilities when either party requests that a relationship cease,” states the report.

In the university’s response to this recommendation, the administration said that some information already exists about the roles of students and supervisors when writing a thesis, but they are committed to reviewing this content.

“We will also work to clearly identify the resources that can help resolve disputes and the formal steps to take if the student wishes to submit an informal or formal complaint,” wrote the university in the report.

Prevention of sexual violence: communication of rights and options, coordination of services

The report states that the office met with four students in relation to Policy 67b, the U of O’s policy on the prevention of sexual violence. Some of the students had filed a sexual violence complaint, while others were subject of a complaint, according to the report.

“Processing a situation where there has been a report of sexualized violence —  (we) clarify the rights, options and what services are available for all the parties in a situation,” said Conway. “A student can have had an experience of sexualized violence, or they can have been accused of sexualized violence and they are sometimes a little bit lost about how to get through.”

According to the report, the four students involved in sexual violence cases “were young and confused by a process they did not understand and by feelings they had not previously had to manage.”

“They may have been given the necessary information but may not have retained it. It is often necessary to repeat information at a timely moment or to explain it so that it can be understood,” states the report.

The options aren’t clear for those students who find themselves involved in a sexual violence case, as the office writes that the school’s sexual violence prevention system “may not yet be sufficiently coordinated.”

“This is not about the work of a single office or service, but rather about a need to clarify how the various elements of the process and services can complement each other,” states the report.

The office did not recommend a specific approach to resolve this issue, but rather gave three suggestions to help make the process more clear for the parties involved in a case:

  • Clearer communication of the rights of the parties (persons making a complaint or who are the subject of a complaint) including the right to be accompanied.
  • Clearer communication to these parties about the process and the support services available to obtain administrative or academic accommodations.
  • Access to a contact person (or “case manager”) who can help these students understand, manage and coordinate processes, options, requests for psychological support, and requests for accommodation.

In their response to the first two points, the university said that they will work on a brochure that could be provided when a complaint is filed and received.

The brochure will inform “the parties of their rights, including the right to be accompanied, as well as about the process, accommodations and resources that can help them (administrative and/or academic), such as the Student Rights Centre, the Student Academic Success Service, the unions, etc.,” the administration wrote in the report.

Normalization of grades: clarification of “definitions of student performance”

In the school’s regulation regarding the normalization of grades, it’s outlined that a faculty can take any corrective action required when a they find that the assignment of marks in one or several courses is not in accordance with the official grading system or with the faculty guidelines.

However, the report revealed that most faculties rarely make use of this approach, and instead use this measure to adjust marks in cases where the professor has applied the grading system incorrectly.

“Students generally understand that professors are not permitted to arbitrarily distribute marks on a predetermined ‘curve,’ ” reads the report. “However, they understand less well the process used to correct the distribution of end-of-term marks.”

The report argues that this is an important issue as the official grading system that’s referred to in the regulation is also found in the grading system regulation. In this regulation however, the definitions of “student performance” that faculties must follow when applying the normalization of grades policy is not identified.

This issue was particularly prominent within the faculty of law-common law, “which has adopted a systematic process for applying the corrective measure to end-of-term marks,” according to the report.

When the office raised the issue of the lack of definitions for student performance with the faculty of law-common law, the department provided them with the following definitions: “A+ exceptional; A and A- excellent; B+ and B very good; C+ and C good; D+ and D fair.”

In their recommendations, the office requested that the faculty publish these definitions on their website, which were previously not available.

They also asked that the university clarify and publish the definitions of the “student performance established in the official grading system” wherever applicable.

Workplace: mental health and conflict resolution

The report states that they met with 36 support staff workers, who were both unionized and non-unionized. Some of the employees who approached the office were looking for general information, where they were unaware that they were unionized or that they could speak to their union about their concerns.

The office also met with several people from three different units who had filed a harassment complaint against their manager or against a co-worker, where some spoke of their mental health issues that they attribute to their workplace.

“Employees who find themselves isolated in their work unit are the ones who have the most difficulty managing these difficult steps, even if they are supported by their union and family members,” reads the report. “They may feel lost in a process that may not actually address all the barriers to their full participation.”

The office did not provide any specific recommendations to address this issue, but they emphasized the importance of two preventative approaches: 

  • Developing mentoring relationships for employees, supervisors and managers.
  • Making available to staff, supervisors and managers training and communication tools that can be used to defuse conflict.

In their response, the university highlighted coaching programs offered through the human resources department, which they described as “an appropriate means of professional guidance to encourage the development of new skills or the improvement of existing ones.”

The university also encouraged staff and managers to participate in training workshop topics such as communication and change.

Decisions of the Senate Appeals Committee and faculties: communication of reasons

The office met with students who had received a decision from the Senate Appeals Committee (SAC), but were not provided with any reason for the decision, according to the report.

The SAC makes final decisions on specific cases of academic appeal once matters have been dealt with at the faculty level, and the report wrote that it is disconcerting when a multi-page appeal with supporting documents is met with a decision that simply states that the appeal was without cause.

“This communication of reasons is also important at the level of faculties and departments because they make decisions affecting students’ careers, their transcripts and their registration fees,” reads the report.

The report added that the communication of reasons is essential for the institution to make fair decisions.

“When you understand the reasons for a decision, you can accept it, or you can provide relevant information if you decide to appeal,” they wrote.

However, the report notes that some of the students who approached the office about this issue “did not have sufficient or relevant grounds to be granted an appeal.”

“It would have been preferable for them, for their faculty and for the SAC to have this clarified at an earlier stage by clearly stating the reason for the decision,” states the report.

The report’s recommendation to this issue asks that the university ensure that SAC members include the main reasons in their decisions when an appeal is not granted, and also encouraged faculties to continue to include the main reasons when communicating their decisions.

“SAC members are sensitive to the fact that students and faculties need to understand the reasons behind the Committee’s decisions,” the university wrote in their response. “In recent years, efforts have been made in this area and members want to continue to improve the process.”