UNI LIFE 101 || Facing a university conflict?

First thing to do is get advice by making an appointment with an unbiased, confidential student ombud.


Here’s the scenario: A student sees a C- on his economics mid-term, and the blood drains from his face. He knew he hadn’t been fully prepared, but he’d also been dealing with a new medical diagnosis.

With economics being his weakest class, his grade point average (GPA), and dream of getting into law school, were suddenly in jeopardy. He hit the panic button and booted it over to his professor’s office intending to beg for a makeup exam.

Is he making the best move? What would you do in this fictitious scenario? What would you do in any situation where you felt like you’d been treated unfairly by the university?

In fact, a student wishing to deal with an academic, discipline, interpersonal and financial university-related issue should make an appointment for a free, confidential consultation with a University of Alberta student ombudsperson.

“Ombuds are impartial third parties, and we strive to ensure that university processes related to students operate as fairly as possible,” explained Marc Johnson, undergraduate student ombudsperson in the Office of the Student Ombuds. “We are advocates for fairness or due process, not legal advocates. But we can advise on what your rights are, and the best way to handle various situations.”

“Ideally, we are not a place of last resort,” pointed out Remonia Stoddart-Morrison, a graduate student ombudsperson intern.

“We are the place you can reach out to at the first sign of a problem for which you can’t identify a solution,” she explained. “Many problems become worse over time. And often things are more easily resolved early on.”

Problems a student ombuds can assist with include grade appeals, student and applicant discipline, academic standing (requirement to withdraw, probation, appeals, etc.), student-supervisor conflicts, breakdowns in graduate programs, conflicts between students or with professors, intellectual property issues, professional practice concerns, residence disputes, bullying, discrimination and harassment.

At your appointment, your ombudsperson will learn your situation, and explain what university regulations apply and what options may be available, said Johnson. “We will also likely talk to you about alternative explanations in a dispute—to try and help you view it from the other person’s perspective as well so you can make the best informed decision possible.”

“Depending on your situation, we can empower you with ways to express your side of things, how to frame an issue, and answer questions you might be asked,” added Stoddart-Morrison. “You’ll get much farther ahead when you have a respectful dialogue that doesn’t put anyone on the defensive.”

Tips for avoiding potential problems:

Be in the know

Read all the materials you are given upon registration with the university, including the University Calendar, and Code of Student Behaviour. “Also read your course syllabus and connect with your faculty’s academic supervisor if you are unclear about anything,” said Stoddart-Morrison.

Watch deadlines

Don’t leave things too late. Contact an ombudsperson in advance of deadlines, especially those listed on a requirement to withdraw, said Johnson.

Explore your options

Before making an appeal for a grade change, for example, it’s ideal to meet with a student ombuds to find out if you have grounds. “We won’t tell you what to do or make a decision for you. We may make recommendations on potential courses of action and explore options. The decision is, however, ultimately up to you,” said Johnson.

In the scenario at the start of this story, if a student has a long-term medical problem, they may register with Student Accessibility Services to determine their accommodation needs, said Johnson.

“In most cases, in order to successfully appeal a grade, one must prove there was a procedural mistake or bias in the marking,” he added.

“Course outlines should indicate how grades are allocated for each assignment,” pointed out Stoddart-Morrison. “Really, it’s best for any student who feels they are unfairly treated to come to talk us first.”