Ombuds Office Reports Highlights Common Issues Among Students, Offers Potential Solutions

Cases stemmed from confusion over grading, funding, and relationships with faculty.

By Peter Maheras

The Office of the Student Ombudsperson has released its biannual report summarizing the office’s work over the summer and autumn quarters and outlining potential policy changes for the University. The report’s suggestions include establishing independent conflict resolution mechanisms, drafting clearer research collaboration guidelines, and increasing communication between professors and students.

The Ombuds office assists undergraduate and graduate students in resolving a broad range of conflicts, including those that pertain to housing, academics, research, and employment. The office is led by Student Ombudsperson Sarath Pillai, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, and Associate Student Ombudsperson Min Lee, an M.D.–Ph.D. candidate at the Pritzker School of Medicine.

“Any student—any undergraduate or graduate or professional student—who is in a bind or who doesn’t know what to do or where to go if they have an issue, they are welcome to approach our office,” Pillai said in an interview with *The Maroon*. “[Cases] could range from conflicts with your roommate in the dormitory, to an interaction that you might have had with an administrator in the College, to your classroom, to your interactions with your [professors].”

The Ombuds office offers advice to students navigating University-related conflicts and can serve as a mediator between parties in a conflict. The office can suggest policy changes to the University, but they cannot compel the University to make policy changes or overrule decisions made by University administrators or professors. 

During the summer and autumn quarters of 2021, the Ombuds office processed 28 cases, with the majority of cases arising from students in the College. The report states students often found administrators in charge of existing mechanisms for conflict resolution in University departments had potential conflicts of interests because administrators often had relationships with those involved in conflicts.

“The University is already aware of this problem of people who are involved in the problem being the judges of the problem, which is what happens in small departments where there are only two or three people doing everything in the department,” Pillai said. “So, the person who is supposed to adjudicate on the problem is also involved in the problem.”

The University recently established a new position in UChicagoGRAD to address this problem outside of academic departments, but the position will only resolve conflicts involving graduate students.

The Ombuds office reported that undergraduate students often contacted the office with concerns about grades and confusion over professor expectations. In addition to recommending that professors make course expectations and syllabi clearer and more accessible, the report stated that the Ombuds office hopes students and teachers will work together to deemphasize grades and make the learning process more enjoyable.

“The grade is the end result of a course,” Pillai said. “If students have enjoyed the process of learning, then they would naturally be inclined to see the grade as one thing that's coming out of that course, rather than the only thing.”

The report mentioned multiple cases in which students felt anxious because professors had assigned papers that were due during finals week. Although professors can assign papers with deadlines during finals week, the Ombuds office encouraged professors to notify students of paper due dates at least four weeks in advance of the deadline in response to these cases.

The Ombuds office found that a lack of guidelines in laboratory and other research settings and independent resolution mechanisms sometimes led to conflicts between students and their peers or professors. The report cited cases from both undergraduates and Ph.D. students that emerged from conflicts over proper work and credit allocation and managing faculty expectations.

“When these disputes arise, it’s settled in a very ad hoc manner,” Pillai said. “There is no existing mechanism, really, because most of the time people leave that to the personal skills of the individual involved in resolving these disputes.”

For graduate students, where conflicts sometimes occur between students and the faculty in charge of their program, the office recommended that academic departments establish graduate student advisory councils composed of at least one faculty advisor outside of a student’s thesis committee to offer another to resolve conflicts. The report also advised the University to establish guidelines governing student-teacher collaborations and coauthorships to avoid disputes over proper credit in research.

The report outlined several cases where Ph.D. students receiving external funding wanted exemptions from departmental teaching requirements that are typically attached to receiving University funding. The Ombuds office suggested that individual graduate divisions develop localized solutions to these concerns.

In the College, the Ombuds office found that conflicts between athletic and academic requirements sometimes prevented athletes from being able to fully participate in athletics.

“If a student has an academic schedule such that they’re not able to practice a single day in the daytime with their teammates, then there’s a problem,” Pillai said. “So, in those scenarios, we thought that the division or the College should go outside of their existing policy…to make some room for course changes so that the students can participate…in their athletic programs.”

Pillai said his office will determine possible areas of collaboration with the recently established Student Advocate’s Office in the coming weeks, acknowledging that the two offices aim to address similar kinds of problems. Although both offices offer confidential services to undergraduate students, the Ombuds office oversees cases on a broader range of issues and serves all University students.

Pillai encouraged any student who wants assistance resolving conflicts within the University to visit the Ombuds office’s website and contact the office at ombudsperson@uchicago.edu.

“[The Ombuds office] was created for the explicit purpose of advocating for students, for fairness and equity in student life, and for improving the lives of students,” Pillai said. “So, we hope that students come to us on issues that they do not find solutions [from] within the existing mechanisms.”