Ombudsperson terms of reference for position initially unclear
On Feb. 18, a proposal was brought forward at Mount Allison Students’ Union council by Alex Lepianka, vice-president finance and operations, recommending a restructure the university ombudsperson position. Lepianka presented the results of the operations committee’s work on defining the position to council, some of which were met with criticism.
The position of the university ombudsperson was first instated for the current 2015-16 academic year. In the past, a similar role was played by the judicial ombudsperson, who played a function principally related to academic grievances. The university ombudsperson would deal with all student grievances in relation to the university, a role which could extend beyond academic affairs. Most universities have a paid ombudsperson to deal with student complaints. According to Lepianka, when the MASU created the university ombudsperson position, the terms of reference put in place did not adequately clarify the additional responsibilities that were to be filled. “When Josh [Johnson] got the position, we became increasingly aware of fact that terms of reference were unclear,” said Lepianka.
Under the current structure, if an issue is brought to the university ombudsperson’s attention, it does not necessarily have to go through the MASU executive. Johnson, incumbent university ombudsperson, said theoretically the executive should be able to deal with all student complaints, but there may be an issue that the executive doesn’t feel is important, or doesn’t have the time to take of. Lepianka agreed and said, “[A lot of things] will slip through the cracks no matter how good the executive is. It’s just the nature of having a centralised advocacy body.” Under the proposed terms of reference, if the executive does not take on a student issue, it would end there. Johnson said he believes the ombudsperson should have more independence because student concerns should not depend on the executive’s willingness to take them on.
Under the proposed terms of reference, the university ombudsperson could bring an issue which the executive failed to address to council, and council would have the option of mandating the executive to act. However, some complaints Johnson took on this year were of a confidential nature, and the details could not be shared with council.
The original strategy when going through revisions, said Lepianka, was to rework the ombudsperson position to bring it closer to the former judicial ombudsperson role. Lepianka said when those revisions were presented to council, “there was a clear sense that our organization would have lost the position that Josh filled this year.
“The only reason we’re having this conversation is because our university fails to have its own ombudsperson,” said Lepianka. “So it’s up to the students’ union to pick up the slack in this area.”
Lepianka and Johnson will be working together over the next two weeks, along with other councillors, to make changes to those clauses council considered problematic.