Ombudsperson Office addresses student issues
Whenever a student has an issue at the University, and the normal channels they go through do not result in a resolution, there is another service available. The Ombudsperson Office, located in Van Nest Hall on the College Ave campus, serves as a neutral party that can listen and try to mediate a resolution.
Sybil James, ombudsperson for students, said her office helps students with problems when they are not getting anywhere with their deans. It can sometimes be daunting to try to navigate through the University’s policies and procedures for students and situations. The office is another resource available for students.
An ombudsperson, which is a Swedish term for representative, acts as a mediatory between individuals and a government, James said. In this case, she is a neutral person who acts as a mediatory between Rutgers and its students.
“Most students find us through referrals. Students are referred to us by the dean of students office or an academic advising dean,” she said. “Sometimes when students and families have problems, they call the presidents office. They will refer them to this office.”
A majority of the issues James said she deals with have to do with student and faculty conflicts. Sometimes a situation does not fall under a specific policy or procedure, and that is when students can turn to her office for help.
“If you’re in the [School of Arts and Sciences], and you’re unhappy with a grade, you follow the process to get a grade dispute resolved,” she said. “If your situation doesn’t quite fit under there, or if you can’t demonstrate whatever need that they have to show a numerical error, but there was another type of error, we are the next step.”
The office can work with a student and faculty member to try to resolve the dispute in a way that both parties are content with the resolution, James said.
Unlike most ombuds offices at other universities, the one at Rutgers only services the students, she said. Most other ombudspersons service faculty and staff as an extension of most human resources offices.
“For example, Princeton has an ombuds office, but its primary function is working with the faculty and staff,” James said. “I prefer to work with students because I came from a Student Affairs background.”
James, a Rutgers alumna of 1988, said she went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School and graduated in 1991. After practicing law, she came back to the University and worked at the Camden campus as the Assistant Dean of students before being nominated as the ombudsperson in 2006.
“The office was created primarily by [former] President McCormack. [He] came to [Rutgers] from the University of Washington,” she said. “At his university, the ombuds office was created in the 1970s, when students were protesting the Vietnam War. It was an office that primarily addressed the needs of students.”
This is still true to this day, James said. The office at the University of Washington inspired him to create one here. After the office was started, James was hired and has remained as the first ombudsperson at the University.
Gail Sylvester-Johnson, administrative secretary at the Ombudsperson office, said the office respects students privacy and does not share details of visits with anyone. Other departments on campus, besides students, have also benefited from the office on campus.
“As far as offices that have benefitted from our services … student accounting, financial aid, academic services deans or the dean of students office [have all benefited]. These departments have all utilized our services at some time or another,” she said.
The office has also recently seen an influx of requests for Financial Aid and Student Accounting help, with the number of requests for help rising over the last two years compared to years past, James said.
Along with the University, many media outlets and corporations utilize an ombudsperson, James said. From ESPN to NBC, companies utilize the position to give their clients a place to go when they are unsure of a specific policy or procedure or if they have an issue they are unsure of how to resolve.
“When this office was being created, we consulted some corporations in New York like Meryl Lynch and American Express because they have this position already. They cater to employees but to clients and customers as well. They are considered very successful ombuds offices.”
Along with the Ombudsperson of Students in Van Nest Hall on the College Avenue campus, James said the merger with UMDNJ has added an additional 23 ombudspersons to the University.