Meet Jane, the red-tape snipper at the U. of Chicago
Chicago — University of Chicago senior Jane Redfern is a full-time student and a part-time snipper of red tape.
She is the university's official student ombudsman, a position that originated here nationally some 13 years ago.
The sign on the window of the small, somewhat cluttered office suite where she spends about 25 hours a week declares: ''An ombudsman exists to help with problems.''
And so she does. Students come in to talk about every conceivable problem from relationship difficulties with roommates or dormitory heads and ''unjust'' grades awarded them by professors to financial angst over late-payment charges on tuition or slow disbursement of federal loans and parking violations.
''Sometimes people are just angry and upset and want a listening ear,'' says 23-year-old Jane, a sociology major and a candidate for a master's degree in the social sciences.
She may refer some students to career counseling, legal, or mental-health services as the route to the action they want. Or, after trying to get the facts and deciding where the fault, if any, lies, she may suggest a student write or visit a particular administrator or faculty member.
''Sometimes students just don't know where to go, so a lot of cases are referrals,'' she explains.
In many cases where students have tried without success to resolve the problem on their own, or where an exception or change in university policy is called for, Jane gets on the telephone herself and goes to work.
''Students usually deal with secretaries - I talk to their bosses,'' she says. ''But you don't want to go any higher than you have to. Sometimes it's easier for lesser administrators to make the exceptions.''
She notes that often trivial things are the most time-consuming. When one student was furious about not getting his money back from a vending machine, for instance, she launched a series of phone calls aimed not only at getting his money back but assuring that signs were posted on all machines outlining the reimbursement procedure for any similar situations in the future.
The only power in the ombudsman's office is that of persuasion.
''I can only make recommendations and ask that something be done,'' says Jane. ''But this office is respected. I think it's taken with a certain seriousness because it means the student is willing to go to an outside agent.''
Another reason the office is respected is that the position is salaried and comes with an assistant and full-time secretary. Also, Jane was picked for the post from 10 or 15 other applicants by a selection committee and University of Chicago president Hanna Gray. In addition to regular weekly meetings with the university vice-president, Jane can schedule an appointment with president Gray at any time and is officially a member of her office.
One of a family of ten children from Seattle and the first scheduled to graduate from a four-year college, Jane started college here on a scholarship from the Chicago-based American Daughters of Sweden. She had spent two years in Sweden as a student. She has proved amply her ability to cut red tape in her own behalf wherever she felt it justified. She was able for instance to persuade her professors, after the fact, to give her academic credit for her studies abroad (and now advises others to ''get it in writing'' before they go) and pioneered in starting a minicourse on campus in ballroom and disco dancing, which she taught.
''At first student activity officers didn't accept the idea,'' she recalls, ''but I felt there was a real need for students to have some fun in the evenings in this heavily academic place. I finally got the names of people interested and set up the course. Now there are minicourses here in such fields as Japanese flower arranging and photography.''
And she definitely wanted the ombudsman's job.
''I really believe this is a good university, but that students sometimes go away with a bad feeling about it for small reasons like getting a grade they felt they didn't deserve,'' she says. ''It's a short-term experience and some of those things can make it or break it. I wanted to get involved and do something for students.''
She views her job as that of a student advocate, more in the sense of taking the problems of students seriously than of necessarily championing their cause, right or wrong. But, make no mistake, she regards any information she comes across that might be damaging to a student as strictly confidential.
''I wouldn't squeal,'' she says. ''My job is not to go looking for problems. . . . I don't get my nose where it doesn't belong.''