Title

Exhibit - Paul Schiff, Academic Freedom, and the Office of the Ombudsperson

In the mid-1960s, campus life was changing across the America.  No longer were students satisfied with the politics of their country.  Most colleges operated on the principle of in loco parentis, which meant that the school acted in place of the parents and as such, were an authority that was not to be questioned.  However, many students around the country were participating in the Free Speech Movement.  Feeling emboldened, some students and faculty at MSU began to strongly question the status quo.  Paul Schiff was one of those students.  He helped form the Committee for Student Rights whose purpose was to challenge things like housing discrimination in East Lansing, inadequate facilities on campus, the proper role of faculty and administration.  Schiff, a graduate student, wrote about these issues to raise student awareness.  He also distributed what he wrote in a publication entitled Logos.  Generally thought of as a troublemaker by MSU's administration, MSU President John Hannah engaged in a battle of wills against Paul Schiff.  Through a series of misunderstandings and technicalities, the University succeeded in revoking Schiff's student status and denied him readmission.  Schiff, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the University, and ultimately MSU had to re-admit Schiff.  Along the way, a spotlight was on the issue of student rights and free speech, or the lack there of.  In order to solve of the existing problems at the time and to avoid similar conflict in the future, a method of representation for students within the University structure was created.

A newly formed Faculty Committee on Student Affairs created The Academic Freedom for Student at Michigan State University Report, which was approved by MSU's Academic Council, Academic Senate, and the Board of Trustees in early 1967.  This document, now called Student Rights and Responsibilities, provides a framework for regulations governing student conduct and for providing due process in the adjudication of student disciplinary cases.  This document also provides procedures for student complaints and grievances.  Key to ensuring the procedures work, the Office of the Ombudsman (Ombudsperson) was created to provide impartial representation for a student in a dispute between the administration, faculty, or other students.  The Ombudsman was patterned after a Scandinavian concept that literally means "one who represents someone" or more commonly, "citizen protector."  MSU was one of the first Universities in the United States to create this office. 

In 1967, Dr. James D. Rust stepped down from his duties as a professor of English at MSU to become the first Ombudsperson.  When asked to give his perspective on the position, Rust reiterated that he was not an "Establishment Man" nor was he there to enforce rules.  Rust thought of the Ombudsperson as the conscience of the university.  He wished to be a friend of the students; to treat them compassionately and fairly when helping to resolve conflicts in their educational pursuits. Rust remained the Ombudsperson until 1974.

Within two years of the establishment of the office, the number of cases brought to Rust had almost doubled.  In 1970, Theodore Brooks, a professor of social work and part of the Graduate Office, was appointed as a half-time Associate Ombudsperson.  One of his goals when joining the office was to make sure that its services were reaching "alienated minorities" and fringe groups which could be better served.  Additionally, a second member was added to the office in 1970. Don Ensley, was specifically added to the staff to assist minority students; hoping to be a counselor for those students not comfortable with talking to Rust.

MSU’s second Ombudsperson, Carolyn Stieber, was hired at MSU in 1956.  She was the first, and only, woman faculty member in the Department of Political Science for the next ten years.  In 1974 she was appointed Ombudsperson, a post she held for 17 years.  In addition to the impact she made to approximately 1000 students per year, she helped raise awareness about campus issues ranging from grading to housing to sexism in the classroom.  Stieber was also a founder of the National University and College Ombudsman Association, and was active in international ombudsman organizations.  Stieber retired from MSU in 1991.

Joy Curtis became the University's third Ombudsperson in 1991, following Stieber's retirement.  Curtis spent many years as a professor in the College of Nursing.  She was very involved in teaching Study Abroad programs in London, where she collaborated with the Royal College of Nursing.  In addition to her teaching duties, she also had extensive experience working with students during her fourteen years as the Director of Student Affairs for the College of Nursing.  Curtis retired from the University in 1999.

Stan Soffin joined the MSU School of Journalism in 1968 and became its director in 1982.  He was appointed as the University's fourth Ombudsperson in 1998.  As a professor of journalism, his research interests included free speech and the issues of balance and fairness of the press.  As the University Ombudsperson, he helped transform the ways students communicated with his office by establishing a robust online presence.  By 2007, the number of student contacts with the office had more than tripled since the 1960s.  Dr. Soffin retired from MSU in 2011.

Dr. Sandra Harley was appointed the Assistant Ombudsperson in March 2004.  Prior to this Harley served as assistant dean for academic affairs at Davenport College in Lansing and various administrative roles at Lansing Community College.  After Stan Soffin’s retirement in the summer of 2011, Harley served as the Interim University Ombudsperson in the Fall Semester of 2011 until a successor was appointed.  Dr. Harley left the University in December 2011.

Robert Caldwell was appointed as the University's fifth Ombudsperson in January 2012, following a long tenure at MSU in the Department of Psychology.  Over the years, he demonstrated a commitment to the students on campus and earned wide respect across the campus community.  In addition to researching and teaching in the field of child abuse prevention, he served as an associate dean for graduate studies and a senior advisor to the dean in the College of Social Science. 
Caldwell noted that students still have many similar problems as they did when the Office of the Ombudsperson was created 50 years ago; but today they are more aware and willing to reach out for help.  During the 2016-2017 academic year, the Ombudsperson's website (ombud.msu.edu) received over 73,000 visits. 

Dr. Shannon Lynn Burton, Associate Ombudsperson, joined the Office of the Ombudsperson part-time in April 2012.  She previously served the University through teaching and academic advising.  Burton serves the broader ombuds community through her work on various groups within the International Ombudsman Association including as one of the inaugural co-chairs of the Research and Assessment Committee and as co-editor of the Journal for The International Ombuds Association.  She also serves MSU jointly as the University's Research Integrity Coordinator.  Burton is a member of the American Bar Association's (ABA) Dispute Resolution Section Ombuds Committee.

Today, as the Office of the Ombudsperson celebrates its 50th anniversary, it continues its important mission to help students resolve conflicts with the University in a neutral, confidential, informal, and independent manner.

 


Exhibit created by Whitney Miller and Megan Badgley Malone,

Michigan State University Archives & Historical Collections

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