Faculty conversations: Robert Caldwell
Robert Caldwell is new to his job, but he is part of an old tradition that began in the 1960s at Michigan State University.
In 1965, the Committee for Student Rights distributed a four-page newsletter called Logos in the residence halls without permission. This action took place during a backdrop of continuing upheavel on many campuses throughout the country, as students and faculty demonstrated against the war in Vietnam and for civil rights.
The events that followed eventually led President John Hannah and the university governance system to replace the doctrine of in loco parentis with a document called Academic Freedom Report for Students at MSU, which spells out student rights and responsibilities.
To ensure that students' rights would be protected and respected, the Office of the Ombudsman was created in 1967.
Caldwell was recently hired as the fifth ombudsperson in MSU history, and began his job January 2012. He also is a professor of psychology. The title of the office changed from "ombudsman" to "ombudsperson" with his new appointment.
"The first thing I'm trying to do is really immerse myself in history, and immerse myself in the tradition we have established here at Michigan State University," Caldwell said.
Three of the four previous ombudsmen are still alive and living in the area, and have been very supportive of him, Caldwell said.
"Stan Soffin, who was the immediate previous ombudsman, has just been terrific," Caldwell said. "We meet and we talk about sticky issues that come into this office."
As the ombudsperson, Caldwell functions as an independent, neutral party to help students resolve conflicts they have with any part of the university, including problems with professors, grades, academic dishonesty, financial aid, the Office of the Registrar and housing.
Caldwell explains to students what their rights are and what process they can take to protect those rights and explore options for resolutions. The ombudsperson carries out these duties in a neutral, confidential, informal and independent manner. Students can visit the office in 129 North Kedzie Hall, send an email or file an immediate request for help online.
MSU was the second U.S. college to establish an office of the ombudsman, after Eastern Montana College in Billings (now the University of Montana, Billings) opened the first college ombudsman's office in 1966. That office has since closed, making MSU's Office of the Ombudsperson the longest continuously running office of its kind in the country.
"The history of this office really has attracted interest from other universities who say, 'We would like to set up a similar office, and can you guide us, can you help us? Would you send us more information that will help us begin this process at our university,'" Caldwell said.
"As such, we have been over the years a real leader in the academic movement to establish ombudspersons all over the country," he said.