The eye that watches over us

An ombudsman may be an obscure position, but the Union of Students thinks it has gone long enough without one. USUAA hopes to find someone to fill the role that has been empty for three years.

The USUAA ombudsman position was created to receive and investigate student complaints and keep an eye on USUAA itself, watching out for ethics violations, for instance, said USUAA Sen. Ben Garcia, who served as a de facto ombudsman last year.

‘I like to look at it as USUAA”s private investigator,’ Garcia said.

‘The ombudsman is someone students can go to if they need some higher authority because the system has done something wrong,’ USUAA president David Parks said.

An ombudsman is strictly neutral, and is not a student advocate. Keeping that in mind is one of the hardest things about the job, said Robin Harter, the last ombudsman UAA had. She held the position for three and a half years.

‘The key thing for the ombudsman is they”re not really an advocate for students or the administration. My goal was to come up with fair outcomes and maintain my own neutrality,’ Harter said.

The amount of work the job entails can vary. Garcia said last year he received only three cases.

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‘If you get the $1,000 stipend and only have three cases–that”s a good job,’ he said.

Harter, on the other hand, was a little busier.

‘About 10 a semester was what I was getting,’ she said. ‘But I knew if it was advertised, the floodgates would open.’

The type of cases the ombudsman handles also varies, but problems typically involve a student disagreeing with the way UAA policy is enforced and wishes to appeal. Harter said her cases covered complaints about grades, problems registering, and disagreement over exam policies and employee behavior.

The ombudsman is not successful in every case. The position has no enforcement power over its decisions.

‘Not all students who contacted me got the results they wanted,’ Harter said. ‘There were times I knew in my heart the student didn”t have a chance, but you give it your best shot.’

The ombudsman doesn”t have to wait for a student complaint in order to take action.

‘I had my own list of projects,’ Harter said. ‘Sometimes UAA wasn”t following its own policies.’
An ombudsman”s effectiveness is directly tied to their ability to develop relationships with UAA”s leaders, according to Harter.

‘They have no power, but they still have great opportunity to influence change,’ Harter said. ‘A person in this position must build positive relationships with the important decision makers at UAA. It may not be a position of power, but with many UAA employees, I found it was a position of respect.’

Harter and Garcia both stress that diplomacy is an essential element in the position. Additionally, they must also know, or learn, how the university works, and UAA”s bureaucracy is not a simple system.

‘This is a very hierarchical system with a structured bureaucracy and several decision making layers,’ Harter said.

After Harter”s departure, USUAA left the position vacant. ‘I guess previous administrations were dealing with problems as individual senators rather than having an ombudsman,’ Parks said. ‘But since we have a full assembly this year, we thought it would be only logical to have the ombudsman position filled as well.’

Traditionally, ombudsmen are supposed to be independent of the body that appoints them in order to maintain neutrality.

At the moment, however, no one seems to be interested in the job.

‘I think that”s due to a lack of understanding and a lack of selling the position–I had to research it myself to learn what it was,’ Harter said.

The ombudsman is appointed by the USUAA president and approved by the assembly, so there is no lengthy petition process. The position is currently paid $500 per semester, but that may change as the USUAA Rules Committee finishes reshaping the position.

‘Each administration writes up the job description based on what they want,’ Parks said.
Parks wants to fill the position soon, but warns that it”s not an easy job.

‘It”s quite the project to stir up the system and the rules,’ he said. ‘It”s not glamorous, but it is rewarding.’