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To students trying to navigate McGill's maze of bureaucracy, the university can appear to be a cold and unforgiving place. For these, ombudsperson Norman Miller's warm handshake and uncritical attitude are very welcome. He responds to the problems brought to him with information, advice, intervention and referrals. Everything stays confidential in this informal process, and he does not take any action unless the student requests or desires it. As he says, he has "no power except the power of diplomacy and the power of persuasion." These powers have helped him to solve academic, interpersonal, financial and other problems brought to his office.
Most issues are related to marks, and Miller often meets with students with health or personal problems that have contributed to a poor performance. The office also sees what he calls catastrophic academic problems where students have been asked to withdraw. "I am most proud of those students who we have helped to be readmitted and graduate from their programs."
Miller has been a mediator all his life; he jokes, "Even my dog has picked up on it - she breaks up fights between other dogs." A member of the McGill community since age 16, he has been part of the Faculty of Dentistry for 30 years. Early in his teaching career, he developed a habit of meeting informally with his students to discuss any issues they might have, and was surprised to see entire classes showing up. He teaches Dental Ethics and Law, a relatively new subject in the field, and holds many positions at McGill, including a place on the Senate, the directorship of a multidisciplinary residency program and the directorship of community relations for the Faculty of Dentistry. In his opinion, "People in universities - I mean professors - love students but they don't always know how to show it." His work in the community has been his way of expressing his care for students.
A turning point in his career occurred when the Faculty of Dentistry was faced with closure in 1990 due to budgetary, research and other problems. Not wanting to see his faculty founder, Miller used all his skills to bring people together to save it. "Something compelled me to rise up," he says, and the committee he formed raised close to $1.7 million for the faculty, which is now thriving. He says that working on such a sensitive issue while trying to maintain a friendly relationship with the university was an experience that taught him a lot about mediation.
Miller is unusual for an ombudsperson. "I don't have any special training," he says, "just life training and training with patients. I know how to bring people together." The key to solving a dispute, in his opinion, is to humanize the situation and try to create an atmosphere of mutual respect between the two parties. Miller enjoys his role as ombudsperson because it gives him a chance to work with people to improve the McGill community.
In the office, all actions and decisions are the product of discussion and mutual agreement, and the ombudsperson remains neutral, not an advocate for either side. Miller practices "alternate dispute resolution," attempting to solve disputes before they proceed to the more formal processes of appeal, discipline and grievance. He emphasizes that the ombudsperson's office is the only office at McGill that is never an "office of notice," meaning that it has no authority to take any action not requested by a student. (The Office of Student Advocacy, for example, is an office of notice.) But he warns that once a student has gone to another channel, he can no longer work with them.
Since taking the position in September 2003, Miller has influenced the ombudsperson's office in a few ways. He says "this office reflects entirely the personality of the ombudsperson," and one of his main traits is his willingness to consult with others. "I use my staff as a team," he says; "I need their input." His staff consists of his secretary, Carmela Parzanese, and a work-study student, Sammy Zahabi. He adds that although the official mandate of the ombudsperson is to deal with students, he does not turn anyone away, including faculty and even members of the larger community.
One of his main recommendations is that the position, now a half-time position, be made full-time, because the number of cases - 284 last year - does not represent the needs of a university of over 25,000 students. SSMU and PGSS have strongly backed this recommendation. He says the office also requires more publicity: students in trouble may not think there's anybody to help them, and many do not even know that the office exists. McGill can be intimidating, and "sometimes," says Parzanese, "what students really need is someone to listen to them - an office that is approachable." Parzanese is often the first person to hear the student's problem. Miller insists that she acts as his assistant ombudsperson.
Miller also hopes that the new Harassment and Discrimination Prevention and Awareness Office will work together with the ombudsperson's office. This new office will be able to deal with problems of harassment and discrimination based on race, religion or sexual orientation.
Miller points out that while his office is not well known, McGill's policy is that the ombudsperson be the first resort in dispute resolution, not the last resort. He encourages students and staff to bring up problems at an early stage; he is always available to talk.
"We get unusual problems," says Miller, "and we've solved some pretty unsolvable problems." With a success rate of about 80 percent, he is most proud of the cases involving students who would have had to leave McGill, but who are now successfully completing their programs. He points out that McGill's high percentage of international students can make for cultural misunderstandings, but he stresses that the students here are "some of the best minds on the planet." He believes that "it is the responsibility of the university to care for its students," and that the ombudsperson is instrumental in fulfilling that obligation. "We're supposed to be developing new things here [at McGill]; I'd like to see us be a model for society."