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A Conversation with Stan Soffin on of the 40th anniversary of the Office of the Ombudsman

University Ombudsman Stan Soffin recently spoke with Ike Iyioke of the MSU News Bureau about the Office of the Ombudsman. The conversation that follows first appeared in the MSU News Bulletin on September 27, 2007.  

Q:   How was the ombudsman's office created?

A:   The seed was planted in 1965, when the Committee for Student Rights distributed a four-page newsletter, called Logos, in the residence halls without permission. The events that followed eventually led President Hannah and the university governance system to replace the doctrine of in local parentis with a document called Academic Freedom Report for Students at Michigan State University. The AFR, as the document came to be called, went into effect fall term 1967. 

To assure that the student rights set down in the AFR were not abused, the AFR included a section that created the Office of the Ombudsman. This action took place during a backdrop of continuing calamity on many campuses throughout the country, as students and faculty demonstrated against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights, in the broadest sense. 

Q:  I've heard MSU has the longest standing college ombudsman's office in the country. Is that true?  

A:   Eastern Montana College in Billings (now the University of Montana, Billings) opened the first college ombudsman's office in 1966, one year before the MSU office opened.  When the Billings ombuds office closed, the MSU ombudsman's office became the longest continually operating college ombudsman's office in the country. 

Q:  Have the duties of the MSU ombudsman changed over the years?

A:   Yes and no. The fundamental Standards of Practice for this office (confidentiality, neutrality, independence and informality) were established by James Rust, the University's first ombudsman, and honed by his successors, Carolyn Stieber, Joy Curtis and me. Also, we have used essentially the same coding system to track cases that Dr. Rust developed during his first few years on the job. So, not much has changed on those matters.  

However, what has changed is students' use of e-mail to contact this office. This has substantially altered the way we conduct our business.  Several years ago, we stopped asking students who initially contacted us by e-mail to set up appointments to visit the office and, instead, attempted to address their concerns in a volley of electronic messages.   

We still ask students who present more complicated cases to meet with us. Also, the Internet has allowed us to develop a Web site that addresses a variety of issues for students, faculty and staff.  Ultimately, we recommend changes in University policies.  

Q:  How many complaints do you per month?

A:   First of all, we don't distinguish between complaints and other contacts with this office.  Instead, we refer to "contacts" with this office and code them accordingly. During the 2006-2007 reporting period (mid-May to mid-May), we recorded 1,720 contacts—a record number.  Many of those contacts, of course, resulted in multiple phone calls, visits or e-mail exchanges before the cases were resolved. 

Q:   What feedback do you get from students and faculty?

A:   For the most part, we are delighted when a contact sends us an unsolicited thank-you note. Sometimes those notes include suggestions on how we might have done things differently, but for the most part, students in particular are simply saying thanks for helping them out of a jam of one kind or another.   

One student went so far as to say that we helped change her life.  In addition, we recently completed an online feedback survey asking those who had used our services to evaluate their experience. We were pleased with the results and will likely continue this practice. 

Q:  Are you more responsive to students than faculty?

A:  Not necessarily.  In practice, of course, we serve far more students than any other group, including faculty, staff, alumni and parents. While the AFR specifically charges us, among other things, to receive "requests, complaints and grievances of students," in the past 10 years we have had an increasing number of contacts with instructors and administrators.   

In fact, nearly 20 percent of all our contacts in the past reporting period were from faculty members—and that's terrific.  Their calls are usually intended to sort out questions about MSU policies and procedures.  

Parents represent about 6 percent of all contacts with this office. We are happy to answer their questions and explain specific MSU policies that might be at issue, but, of course, we do not divulge any specific information about their sons or daughters without the students' permission.  

Q:   What has been your biggest challenge?

A:   At first, I found it difficult to adjust to my new position, after serving for 30 years as a member of the faculty of the School of Journalism, the last 16 as its director. I missed the give and take of a wonderful faculty and outstanding students.

However, once I settled into this unique position, I realized that the greatest challenge was to maintain the trust, confidence and respect of this office on campus. I simply wanted to build on that trust in helping those seeking our assistance.  I hope I've done that.  

Q:   As your office turns 40, what message do you have for the MSU community? 

A:   I'd like to think our collective goal should be to establish a campus culture that doesn't need an ombudsman's office.