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Amplifying Ombuds Trends with Data

A primary function of an organizational ombuds is to identify and report trends in visitor issues and make recommendations for responsibly addressing them. But how does an ombuds define a trend, and how can one know if the issue is truly pervasive or of consequence? This article describes a pattern of student experiences that was identified by a student ombuds at a large, public research institution. The ombuds mined relevant survey data that were previously collected by the institution to see if visitors’ accounts seemed consistent with those of other students at the University. Exploring relevant existing data allowed the ombuds to report quantitative information to support the compelling anecdotal accounts of student visitors. This article is intended to get ombuds thinking about data collected by their organizations that may support trends they identify in their practice.

One primary function of an organizational ombuds is to identify and report trends in visitor issues and make recommendations for responsibly addressing them (“IOA Best Practices: A Supplement to IOA’s Standards of Practice,” 2009). While this is often referred to as “upward feedback,” there is also apparent value in reporting laterally across the organization to those who have discretion and proximity to address matters directly, locally and effectively. But under what circumstances should issues be reported and to whom? There is no magic number of incidents that creates a trend – no clear algorithm for determining when a concern might warrant a broader, more systematic response. Moreover, reporting trends and making recommendations are delicate tasks that may produce unintended consequences. The ombuds must tenaciously protect the identity of her visitors, which can be challenging when trends relate to areas of the organization that are smaller or have a very unique purpose. Ombuds also risk offending those who have clear and well-defined oversight in the area(s) of concern. This important aspect of ombuds practice is precarious work that requires well-planned communication and mutual respect.

Trends should be brought to light when a systematic response seems warranted – when concerns seem to be frequent or serious. One way to evaluate the ubiquity of an issue is to mine existing, relevant data. Data can provide a more comprehensive look at an issue and help the ombuds frame feedback regarding issues that were brought to her attention. A data-supported trend can serve as powerful impetus to change.

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how ombuds offices can use data about the organization and its constituents to inform practice and policy considerations. Identifying relevant data can add power to the more subjective understanding that comes from interactions with visitors. Specifically, this article will present data about the experiences of a special population of undergraduate students at a large public university which were used to affirm and clarify stories shared in the Student Ombuds Office.

Identifying a Trend

The Student Ombuds Office at University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa welcomes about 400 visitors per year. The institution is very diverse, and ombuds visitors reflect that heterogeneity. Even so, the ombuds noticed a disproportionate number of students in their thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties – students who were frustrated by a system that seemed to be designed for younger learners. The ombuds staff became specifically interested in those who were pursuing undergraduate degrees. This population comprises a collection of adults who may have begun college early in life, but stopped out for some reason (to raise children, pursue a career, etc.) or those who pursued other interests early in life and have recently decided to attend college. The number of undergraduate students at the University who fall within this age range is not proportionally substantial, but common sense and fairmindedness suggests their concerns are worthy of the University’s consideration.

These students brought a myriad of complaints, mostly related to course availability, curriculum, and faculty dynamics. Some academic programs are small and only offer courses during daytime hours, which is challenging for working adults. While the number of online course offerings at USF has increased each year, many programs still offer only traditional, face-to-face courses, which are less flexible. Other degree programs go so far as to require full-time enrollment, which is also not feasible for many adult learners. One ombuds visitor was forced to change her major because her desired major required a commitment to daytime classes that she simply could not manage. This affected her career options and seemed unfair. Another student was considering transferring to earn a degree from a more expensive, non-accredited institution because the University did not seem able to accommodate his work schedule. The ombuds met with several adult students who had resolved to complete their degrees, but who encountered seemingly insurmountable challenges with scheduling and course availability.

Another common concern shared by adult learners related to attendance policies that restricted their ability to manage other aspects of their lives. One mother’s grade was reduced because she did not go to class when her son was having surgery. When she approached her professor, he reiterated his attendance policy. A father’s child was in a car accident which caused him to miss an exam and, while he was able to eventually make it up, that was only after navigating a number of bureaucratic hoops and long after the course had ended. He expressed feelings of frustration because he believed his grade was negatively affected by issues beyond his control.

Visitors also complained about course material and teaching style. Several students had already completed a career in a specific field and entered the University with a sense of what they needed to learn in order for their degrees to be meaningful. They expressed frustrations about content and also about pedagogy. For example, one student said his entire class failed an exam so the instructor let students watch a movie and write a response for extra credit. The movie was in no way relevant to the course content. The visitor was certain the younger, more traditionally aged students were grateful for the opportunity to raise their grades, but he was committed to mastering the material and was disappointed by the instructor’s accommodation. Others talked about attempts to respectfully challenge what was being taught in courses and how they felt shut down by instructors who were unwilling to engage in that kind of discourse.

Other concerns brought by these visitors related more to customer service and support. They shared feelings of vulnerability asking for help from faculty and staff, especially those much younger than the students themselves. Faculty and staff members often want to give uniform support and treatment to their students. When a student in her sixties expressed a need for extra assistance accessing electronic resources for a research project, it was refused to her in an effort to treat all students equally. Another student was upset by an academic advisor’s suggestion that her aspirations of graduate school were too ambitious because of her age.

Technology and electronic business systems also tended to create challenges for students who were not of a more traditional college age. Students are expected to monitor their student financial accounts using an online system. The University does not generally mail paper bills and statements. This created a problem for one student who historically satisfied his tuition bill with a tuition waiver issued by his employer. One semester, he took a course for which charges exceeded the norm. He was not aware that there were additional charges until he was contacted by a collections agency months later since he was unfamiliar with the online system.

These undergraduate visitors consistently reported feelings of being misunderstood and alone. Many said they were the only students in their classes who were not in their late teens or early twenties and that they had not met any other students like them.

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Jennifer Smith Schneider

Jennifer Smith Schneider has been the student ombuds at the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa since 2015. She also teaches in a graduate higher education program at USF and serves on several doctoral committees. Prior to her current role, she held various administrative positions at USF, the University… MORE >

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