Simon Fraser University holds a special place in the annals of ombudspersons. According to the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman, the university was the first institution in Canada to create such a role, in 1965. The current office holder, since 2008, is Jay Solman.
Most universities in Canada today have an ombudsperson – there’s a national association of such office holders, with 50-plus members. At SFU, Mr. Solman deals only with student complaints, as most university employees have access to dispute-resolution mechanisms within their collective agreements. His role is to provide an “impartial, outside perspective,” he says. “I’m not an advocate. I don’t take a side.”
Most complaints relate to academic issues or disputes between graduate students and supervisors. “Complaints tend to be in the traditional sense of ‘I’ve been wronged’ or ‘this isn’t fair.’ A lot of times what it is, is that they don’t quite have the skills to navigate the system … so they get overwhelmed by it.” There can also be completely absurd complaints. “I never know what’s going to come through my office some days. People will complain that the parking stalls aren’t wide enough.”
Mr. Solman deals with about 360 cases a year. “The national average is about one percent of the student population, so I’m pretty close to that,” he says, adding that the trend has been up in recent years. He also notes that he is increasingly seeing students with mental health issues.
Explaining his role, Mr. Solman says: “I really believe that one of the prime directives of universities is academic integrity. We hold ourselves to a very high standard and rigorous review of things that we do. The office of the ombudsperson is just part of that continuum. It’s a mechanism that allows for the review of policies and procedures to make sure that we are accountable to the community and the students and that we hold ourselves to these high standards.” He adds: “I see very little malicious sort of stuff; what I see is just a lot of bureaucracy gone mad.”