Credit: Nick Romanenko
As the university ombudsperson, Sybil
James will act as a neutral party
between the university administration
and students who encounter difficult
issues on campus. She also will identify
systemic problems and help improve them.
A law school graduate, James worked as
a judicial officer at the University of
Pennsylvania and dean of students at the
School of Law-Camden.
Students who are at their wits’ end when it comes to navigating Rutgers’ complex administrative and academic structure now have some recourse: the university ombudsperson.
After conducting a national search over several months, university administrators had to look no further than the School of Law-Camden, where Assistant Dean of Students Sybil James has spent the last several years handling every aspect of student affairs. James started in her new post in November and is splitting her time between New Brunswick and Camden; she will come on board full time July 1.
The idea for the ombudsperson post grew out of a series of presidential retreats on student service in the 2003-04 academic year and is a response to student calls for assistance in dealing with common but difficult frustrations relating to academics and student and campus life in New Brunswick/Piscataway.
Reporting to Philip Furmanski, executive vice president for academic affairs, the ombudsperson will act as a neutral party between the university administration and students who encounter difficult issues on campus, such as dealing with grade changes, not getting their choice of courses and having to travel to different campuses for different service needs. The ombudsperson is neither an advocate for students nor an agent of the administration; rather, the ombudsperson advocates for fair administration of academic policy and student services. The office also offers students the protection of confidentiality.
The ombudsperson also will provide feedback to Furmanski and President Richard L. McCormick on campus trends and issues, as well as identify systemic problems and suggest improvements.
Prior to James’ tenure as assistant dean in Camden, which she held for nine years, she was a judicial affairs officer at the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated from Rutgers College in 1988 and from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1991.
After a few years as a law clerk and attorney, James felt the urge to go back to college – for good. She applied for the ombudsperson position because of her well-rounded student affairs background and her knowledge of the difficulties of being a student at Rutgers.
While her experiences at Rutgers made her a resourceful adult, she says she understands current students’ calls for reform. “I would imagine that Rutgers is very complicated and overwhelming and it is a very new experience if you come from a small high school or smaller community,” she says. “I can appreciate the difficulty some students would have navigating our system.”
James is prepared to deal with students when they are at their most frustrated. She hopes to bridge the gap between faculty/staff and students, and build understanding among students who feel they are victims of a bureaucracy. “Sometimes students are not sure of which resource or office to turn to to address their needs,” James says. “So my goal initially is to try to help students understand that I appreciate the situation they are in and that we will work for their best interest.”
Ombuds offices are growing in number across the country, not only at universities but also in corporations, nonprofit entities, and governmental and nongovernmental organizations. Many ombudspersons at universities exist to help students, faculty and staff, but officials at Rutgers have highlighted student services as an area in need of particular attention. Several universities employ ombudspersons, including the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Miami, Harvard University and Princeton University. The International Ombudsman Association is in Hillsborough and was formed in July 2005 following the merger of the University and College Ombuds Association and The Ombudsman Association.
James has done a lot of problem solving when it comes to students. As assistant dean of students at the School of Law in Camden, she handled “orientation and graduation and everything in between,” she says, including student organizations and events, academic advising and personal counseling.
During her time working in judicial affairs at Penn, James said she experienced a wide range of student experiences. “Anybody who works in judicial affairs deals with every kind of matter that you could possibly imagine, from academic integrity to misconduct,” she says. “You are dealing with extreme cases and seeing students sometimes at their worst, and trying to help them get through a difficult situation while protecting the integrity of the institution. You get your feet in the fire very quickly.”
James feels her work in higher education is part of a larger plan. Her first experience in student affairs came while she was a Rutgers College student and worked as a preceptor (or resident adviser) in Hegeman Hall on the College Avenue campus. “I think it was sort of destiny. My father has worked in education his entire life,” she says. “And so I was always around and involved with universities. All of my jobs in higher education have contributed to my better understanding of what students experience in this institution. But I also know that I will learn quite a bit as I go along.”
As an alumna, James says she wants to be part of the positive changes taking place at the university. “Things have changed from when I was a Rutgers student. You had to go to the gym and wait on line to register for courses, and the first person there in the morning got the best classes,” she says. “It’s sort of the same race, but now it’s on the computer so you can do it in your pajamas.”