Faculty Senate passes resolution recommending NU ombuds program deal with ‘systemic’ issues

Yvonne Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

Faculty Senate passed a resolution Wednesday recommending the establishment of an ombuds program at Northwestern responsible for improving university services for students, faculty and staff.

Presented by the Faculty Rights and Responsibilities Committee, the resolution was introduced for the first time on Wednesday. If created, the ombuds office would be designed as a “designated impartial, neutral, and confidential third party” independent of the University, the resolution said. The office would recommend solutions to systemic problems that students, staff and faculty may face when working with University departments, according to the resolution.

Though senators voiced concerns about the cost of implementation — which the resolution’s draft budget estimated to an annual $104,000 in direct expenses — Senate president and religious studies Prof. Laurie Zoloth said it is a problem that many people at Northwestern are already doing the work of an ombuds office voluntarily.

“I don’t feel entirely comfortable asking people to work for free through the University,” Zoloth said. “At other universities this is a paid service. … It just seemed part of my impulse in being president of Senate to hold Northwestern University’s governing structure up to the standards (of other institutions).”

Ombuds programs have existed at other institutions of higher learning since the 1960s and have been established in more than 300 universities nationwide, according to the resolution. The resolution also clarifies the duties of a full-time ombudsman, who would report directly to the university president and write annual, public reports.

Zoloth said the number of volunteers have been too few to deal with the amount of work necessary and that the ombuds program would serve as a “first line of response” for faculty or individuals who have opinions to voice.

Art history Prof. Claudia Swan, who is on the faculty rights and responsibilities committee, said it is important to have professional oversight on important university issues.

“All too much of these discussions and mediations are … being performed by faculty out of office,” Swan said. “There are too many professional issues that arise that we are not trained for or paid to take care of.”

After a discussion, the resolution passed with only one vote opposing.

Zoloth also encouraged senators to support and learn about issues currently affecting students on campus during her report.

She emphasized Senate’s “neutral and transparent” stance on the issue of graduate students’ unionization. Zoloth then informed senators about a student petition in response to allegations against Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity regarding sexual assault — describing students as “threatened by the fraternity culture” on campus — as well as addressed concerns voiced by immigrant students and green card holders under President Trump.

“This is going to be a long four years,” Zoloth said. “Many groups of students feel upset or threatened.”

Later in the evening, the ad hoc committee on academic freedom — formed in response to both Communication Prof. Laura Kipnis’ Title IX investigation and censorship disputes surrounding Feinberg School of Medicine’s magazine Atrium in 2015 — introduced a report with recommendations to the University.

The report suggested adopting language borrowed from the University of Chicago to define harassment, specifying that harassment must be “objectively unreasonable” behavior. In response to the Atrium incident, the committee recommended that administrators and public relations staff be prevented from editing student or faculty journals.

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