Partners in Academic Integrity: Have You Thought About your Ombuds?
As the academic integrity administrator on your campus, you get a call from an upset parent who states that their student has been accused of cheating in one of his courses, and that the instructor has threatened to fail him. Without a report, and only what the parent is sharing with you, you work to try and explain the process of adjudicating academic dishonesty on your campus. The parent states that the instructor does not intend on filing a report and goes on to outline other issues that their student has experienced in this class. You explain that without a report, there is not much that you are able to do and suggest that their student contact the instructor. The parent shares that they have tried calling the instructor and the department, but this is the only office that has returned their call. The parent and student both feel that they are being treated unfairly, and they want to know what other options they have, and if anyone can help them to discuss the issue with the instructor.
For many academic integrity administrators, this parent situation may be too familiar. Administrators can find themselves spending a lot of time managing multiple parties (parents, students, instructors, chairs) and attempting to facilitate dialogue. At Michigan State University, our All-University Integrity of Scholarship and Grades policy requires that if a faculty member implements a penalty grade in response to academic dishonesty, they must also submit an Academic Dishonesty Report (ADR). With a report, the student would be able to understand the allegation and contest the finding through an Academic Grievance Hearing Board. Additionally, the ADR creates a way for the university to identify subsequent allegations and potential trends.
However, even though our policies and procedures spell out how things should go, we find ourselves educating stakeholders of our policies and procedures until we’re blue in the face. With a steady increase of academic dishonesty reporting, it is easy to feel inundated with balancing both process and holistically supporting student success. Our institution has a unique history of collaboration with the Ombudsperson’s office, which has helped support students and our academic grievance process immensely. The Ombudsperson’s Office can provide confidential and informal guidance to assist students, faculty members, and administrators to identify ways to engage with these issues outside of formal hearing processes. As we all know, students who feel heard and supported are more likely to engage and learn from the adjudication process.
What is an ombuds?
You likely have an ombuds on your campus. An organizational ombuds serves as a designated neutral within an organization and can help individuals or groups to resolve conflicts or explore options to address concerns. They can be found on college and university campuses, as well as corporations and nonprofit organizations. Ombuds listen, provide advice and referrals, and some can help to resolve disputes through mediation or shuttle diplomacy. Additionally, ombuds operate by the International Ombudsman Association’s standards of confidentiality, neutrality, independence, and informality. Additional information on the ombuds role can be found here: https://www.ombudsassociation.org/what-is-an-organizational-ombuds.
Each ombuds will work a little bit differently, and while some are able to serve the entire campus community, others may be limited to specific constituencies. For example, some ombuds will only work with student concerns, some work only with faculty or staff. You may have one ombuds or multiple on your campus. Partnering with a student facing ombuds, however, can be helpful as you navigate concerns.
The Ombudsperson’s office on our campus is often the first point of contact for students who have been accused of academic misconduct. It serves as a place where they can discuss their concerns, explore the process, and decide how they would like to engage. The Ombudsperson can assist students in preparing to speak with their instructor regarding the issue, how to most appropriately reach out to the Department Chair or point them to resources in order to prepare for a formal hearing. It is important to note that the Ombudsperson does not engage in formal processes, nor does the ombuds serve as an advocate for any involved parties.
Approaches to academic integrity should be collaborative and include partners from across campus. The unique nature of academic misconduct provides an opportunity to engage with your ombuds if you have not already done so. Academic integrity processes often bridge the gap between academics and formal adjudication processes, leaving room for misunderstanding and frustration. Collaborating with your campus ombuds creates a strong partnership that supports academic success.
Jake Kasper works in the Office of the Dean of Students at Michigan State University.
Ryan Smith serves as the Assistant University Ombudsperson at Michigan State University.