Kelly Barker wants people to know that the University Ombudsperson is available to help anyone with a connection to Brock, not only students.
“There’s no wrong reason to contact me,” said Barker, who was appointed as University Ombudsperson in February 2020. “I may not resolve every issue, but at the very least, I’m a confidential sounding board who can offer feedback and resources.”
Brock’s Ombudsperson Office is a confidential, independent and impartial service overseen by a Joint Oversight Committee that advocates for fair policies, procedures practices and decision-making on campus. With funding from Brock University, the Brock University Students’ Union and the Graduate Students’ Association, the Office supports Brock staff, faculty, students and prospective students who have complaints or concerns by providing resources and advice, facilitating communications, and assisting with informal problem solving and appeal procedures. The Office does not intervene in matters covered by a collective agreement unless all parties consent to the Ombudsperson’s informal involvement.
Most often, Barker works with undergraduate students who are dealing with academic misconduct or going through an appeal process, such as a grade appeal.
“I’m very familiar with the appeal process and I can even help with documents,” she said. “I can help form the best argument for the student so they can represent their case in the best way possible.”
More than this though, Barker encourages anyone who feels they are being treated unfairly to contact her. In addition to helping individuals advocate for themselves and decide on courses of action, the Ombudsperson can make recommendations on changes to University policies or procedures.
“When situations of unfairness come to my attention, especially when it’s multiple occurrences, I have the ability to bring awareness to it in a confidential way that I think can bring change,” she said.
These recommendations are documented in the Ombudsperson Office’s first annual report, which was released earlier this month. It includes recommendations related to academic misconduct as well as reprisal and retribution.
Barker said she hopes to bring light to issues within the report and work towards change that will benefit the University community.
In the report, Baker notes there is a gap in policy regarding reprisal. Although there is reprisal protection in many existing policies at Brock, such as for people reporting sexual violence or discrimination, there is no reprisal protection should instructors exhibit retaliatory conduct against students appealing a grade or communicating concerns with a course. Baker is advocating for the creation of an overall policy regarding reprisal and retribution.
Also in the report are recommendations for addressing academic misconduct. In this case, a policy exists, but existing standard penalties in the Academic Integrity Policy don’t always allow for individual circumstances to be considered, such as compassionate or medical reasons that could lead to poor judgment and choices.
“This is very important during the time of COVID because this past year has impacted people more strongly than probably any other year,” Barker said. “If there is ever a time to analyze compassionate circumstances and how that may apply for a student who’s going through the academic misconduct process, it’s now.”
She also noticed significant differences in penalties for academic misconduct between departments, which can be unfair to individual students.
To help with these academic misconduct concerns, Baker recommends department chairs and faculty members receive training on how to appropriately assess and respectively respond to individual circumstances of academic misconduct, especially when there are compassionate or medical considerations. Baker also recommends associate deans collaborate on creating a range of standard penalties that are similar across departments.
Although Barker has been in the Ombudsperson role for the past year and a half, the Joint Oversight Committee has only recently formed. Barker is excited for their first meeting to take place later this month.
“The committee is the vehicle by which hopefully more systemic change can move forward, including my proposed reprisal policy,” she said. “I’m very much looking forward to it.”
For more information on the Office of the Ombudsperson, visit brocku.ca/ombuds