Duncan McDonald is the University of Calgary’s new student ombudsperson. He took the position in late February, replacing interim ombudsperson Sheldon Roth.
McDonald’s main responsibility is to act as an intermediary between students and the university administration. The ombudsperson consults students on academic and non-academic issues and works to resolve conflicts and struggles students face. The ombudsperson works closely with the Students’ Union and the Graduate Students’ Association.
The Gauntlet sat down with McDonald and spoke about the role of the ombuds office at the U of C and the benefits it can provide for students.
The Gauntlet: First of all, what is your background? What did you do before you were an ombudsperson at the U of C?
Duncan McDonald: Ombudsing is a very diverse occupation and people can come from many different streams into the field. I came from a non-profit, came back to school and did my master’s in conflict analysis and management from Royal Roads University. I was also an ombudsperson at Brock University, which then led me to this position.
G: What is your role as an ombudsperson?
DM: Most people don’t have any idea what the term means. Basically, it is to be a representative and a mechanism by which people can register complaints into a system and find resolution to their problems. We are impartial, informal, confidential and we seek to resolve complaints in that manner.
G: How can you be an effective outlet for students?
DM: Part of it is that students have no idea what the ombudsperson does. Because the student population turns over every year, we continually have to tell students what the role is. I will say that the most consistent feedback I have in the office is, ‘I wish I had known more about you and I wish I had come earlier.’ The ombuds office is one of the most unique offices on any university campus.
University is like a huge maze. Students are often caught up in processes, procedures, problems and they have no idea how to resolve them. The ombuds office acts as an outlet for students to talk about their issues and find effective ways to get around their problems.
G: What do you think are the biggest issues facing students?
DM: I will say that based on interactions I have had so far, they are no different from any university in Canada. My observations of a big issue for students is maintaining mental health, which is tied to academic performance. Also, the issues international students face because they often get caught in a system they don’t understand because they are interacting with a new culture, a new city and new processes.
G: What do you think needs to be done to ensure the student experience is positive?
DM: What I can do to make sure the student experience is positive is to provide a conduit for them to interact with the system when they are in conflict. From a conflict resolution or management point of view, the sooner you resolve your conflicts, the better and that can contribute to better mental health and a better experience overall.
G: What are your biggest goals coming into this position?
DM: My biggest goal is to understand the system within the U of C. It would be wrong to assume that every university in Canada is exactly the same. The U of C is a large, growing and complex institution, and my first goal is to understand it, interact with as many people as I can and get the message out about the importance of what the ombuds office can do to help students who are struggling.
G: If you had any messages for U of C students, what would they be?
DM: If I could get one message out, it would be to contact me early. I cannot tell you how many times, both at Brock University and here, that students came in way too late. Sometimes I have had issues that needed 10 minutes to resolve, sometimes it’s months, so the earlier they come in the more opportunities and options we can generate for resolution.