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Inside the Ombudsman Office

Over the next three weeks, the Gazette will profile the Office of the University Ombudsman, a relatively new unit on campus that evolved out of the former Dispute Resolution Mechanisms function. The series kicks off today with an introduction to the office, followed by a closer look next week at how the university ombudsman works with different groups at Queen’s, including non-unionized staff. The series concludes with a focus on the university ombudsman’s role within the Safe Disclosure Reporting and Investigation Policy. That policy provides a procedure to raise concerns regarding possible contravention of university policies or regulations and the misappropriation or misapplication of university assets or funds.

Just over two years ago, the Office of the University Ombudsman was created, replacing the Dispute Resolution Mechanisms function at Queen’s University. While some things changed – such as reporting structure – the new office operates in much the same manner as the previous model.

[Harry Smith, Queen's University Ombudsman]
Harry Smith, University Ombudsman, in his office on the fourth floor of Robert Sutherland Hall. The Office of the Ombudsman provides independent, impartial, and confidential advice to staff, faculty, and students.

"We keep the door open for people to have a conversation with us,” says Harry Smith, University Ombudsman, who formerly served as the Coordinator of Dispute Resolution Mechanisms. “Anyone can come in and raise an issue if they think they are not being heard elsewhere or if they are not certain where to go with a concern.”

If anything, according to Mr. Smith, the natural evolution to an Office of the University Ombudsman strengthens access to independent, impartial, and confidential advice for staff, faculty, and students.

“Creating this office reinforces independence from administrative structures,” says Mr. Smith, who notes that the office now reports to the audit and risk committee of Queen’s Board of Trustees. “We have found that many people have a general understanding of what an ombudsman does. We are looking to build on that knowledge to increase the awareness of our services and, as a result, enhance institutional accountability.”

The office offers policy and procedural advice on numerous matters. For students, these issues may relate to academic integrity, non-academic misconduct, harassment and discrimination, and sexual violence. Faculty and staff also may have questions about such matters, but arising in a different context or from a different perspective.

In addition to providing information and advice to people who contact the office, the University Ombudsman can also perform several other functions. That can include referring inquires to appropriate individuals or offices, participating to facilitate a resolution, and recommending fair resolutions to individual cases. The University Ombudsman can also recommend policy changes to address the systemic barriers to fair processes.

Offering clarity

With different policies and dispute resolution mechanisms in place at Queen’s, it’s not always clear where staff, faculty, and students can turn when an issue arises. Mr. Smith and Gail MacAllister, Associate, Policy and Appeals, possess in-depth knowledge of university policies, procedures, and issue resolution resources so that they can offer the best advice to people.

The need for an ombudsman
Queen’s University is among the 25 universities and eight colleges across Canada that has an ombudsman office.
According to the Association of Canadian College and University Ombudspersons, such offices are important because they:
* Convey an institution’s commitment to procedural fairness.
* Promote a constructive approach to conflict resolution.
* Help avoid long and costly litigation and make formal processes run more smoothly.
* Provide a user-friendly source of information about policies, rights, and avenues of redress. Identify policy weaknesses and gaps in the system.

“We try and bring down the level of anxiety a bit in order to help them make sense of things,” Mr. Smith says. “Part of what we do involves providing some context to a situation. If we can help them understand the essence of the issue, they can focus on that and not be entirely overwhelmed by the situation that they find themselves in.”

For Mr. Smith, it is all about providing a safe space for members of the Queen’s community to discuss their concerns.

“We recognize that some people may feel uneasy about coming forward with an issue, and they just want a better understanding of how the resolution process might work within the university,” he says. “We can have a conversation and explain what that process looks like, what they need to do to engage or initiate that process, without putting it in motion and making them feel as if they are losing control.”

As an impartial third party, the Office of the Ombudsman seeks to facilitate a resolution to issues or concerns in a constructive manner before they escalate to other formal appeal or complaint procedures or processes outside the university, which can be costly for all involved.

“By offering some assurance that the issue will be addressed in a procedurally fair manner, then hopefully we can avoid it progressing unnecessarily,” Mr. Smith says. “We aim to deescalate the situation and help all parties reach a timely resolution that is satisfactory for all parties.”

Visit the Office of the University Ombudsman website for more information about its services. To book an appointment, email ombuds@queensu.ca or call 613-533-6495.