SFU Ombudsperson celebrates 50th anniversary

Jay Solman has served as SFU’s Ombudsperon since 2009. - Photo courtesy of Kamil Bialous

As old as the university itself, the SFU Office of the Ombudsperson is significant in that it was the first of its kind found at an academic institution in North America.

The office is an independent resource for the university community that aids in conflict resolution when it comes to issues of academic integrity, academic difficulties, or misunderstandings related to language skills or different culture.

The word Ombudsperson may throw some people off, as it has its roots in a 300-year-old Swedish term, ‘ombudsman’, meaning “person who has an ear to the people.” ‘Ombudsperson’ means an advocate for fairness and equity, rather than for individual’s specific complaints.

As the university opened in 1965, the students at the time felt that the Ombudsperson was something that would benefit the university. “At that point, there were no other ombudspersons in any other universities,” explained Jay Solman, SFU Ombudsperson.

For the 50th anniversary, a joint conference was held in May “where ombudspersons from all over North America and Europe came. It was hosted at the Harbour Centre downtown, and SFU did contribute to the conference as a sponsor,” said Solman.

The office has evolved over the years in response to turnover in students, faculty members, and student societies. In 2007, students had approached the university because they felt that the office was needed to fall in line with where other offices had gone.

Solman explained, “Over time, things start to get more professional, they grow. [. . .] So [SFU] felt that having a jointly funded office [by SFU, the Graduate Student Society, and the Simon Fraser Student Society] — that was fulfilling national standards.”

“[The university] should be transparent, we should be clear with our policies.”

Jay Solman,

SFU Ombudsperson

The office is independent, as it is not affiliated with any other parts of the university. According to Solman, “The independence is about the respect that the office is given, and the understanding that there is a reason for independence within the university.”

The primary role of the Ombudsperson at SFU is in conflict resolution between the university and students. When students feel like they have been treated unfairly by the university, the Ombudsperson is one of the resources that they can seek.

“This office helps the students exercise their rights, in some way, and also helps the students to understand how to resolve a problem within the university,” expresses Solman.

The Office of Ombudsperson works in two ways: holding the university accountable to a standard of treatment of its students and helping the students directly.

“[The university] should be transparent, we should be clear with our policies, we should be timely in the decisions we [make], and a student should have a real understanding of what happens if they are accused of something,” emphasized Solman.

About 400 students a year come see the Ombudsperson through referrals. There are variety of issues that the Ombudsperson deals with, such as students in Residence and Housing, students with extenuating circumstances, grade appeals, graduate students who have issues with their supervisors, issues around fees and transfer credits, students with issues about certain policies in the university and academic integrity.

Said Solman, “Every day is different. There are always unique problems.

“University is complicated, and then when you get different answers, that can be hard to figure that out,” he added.

“I am a resource. I am really here to help students resolve issues. [They do] not need to be huge issues.”