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October 12, 2000 The problem-solvers: Sally Spilhaus and Kristen Robillard



Photo of Kristen Robillard and Sally Spilhaus

Kristen Robillard and Sally Spilhaus

by Barbara Black

Sally Spilhaus and Kristen Robillard are just across the street from each other now, but they’re looking forward to sharing adjacent office space in a few months. The reason is their professional affinity.

Spilhaus is the Advisor to the Rector on Rights and Responsibilities, while Robillard is the University Ombudsperson. However often they may brainstorm and consult with one another, though, their jobs are different.

Spilhaus deals with reports of unacceptable behaviour, while Robillard deals with the policies, rules and procedures of the university, from the marking system to the payment of fees, and how they are applied. They function independently and impartially, but “I guess we could say that the two offices balance each other,” Spilhaus said.
“For example, I had a case last year of a student who was acting out in the classroom and became quite violent at one point. At one point he had questions about the way he was treated throughout the process of dealing with his behaviour, and he went to Kristen for that.”

Neither automatically takes the side of the person who comes to them, although they listen carefully and sympathetically. In Robillard’s case, she weighs up the evidence, examines the rules and policies that apply, and then gives her opinion of what is fair, and what can be done. She’ll support a complainant who hasn’t been treated fairly, but “if the university has behaved appropriately, I have to say so and explain my reasoning.”

Spilhaus takes a similar approach. “I’m simply advising, giving the person the sort of information they need to make an informed decision about what to do. If they decide to make a formal complaint, then I make sure that the university’s procedures are applied.”

In an emergency, Spilhaus becomes an agent for the university, and her role is to minimize risk to the rest of us. She says that Concordia’s procedures to deal with threatening behaviour have vastly improved since the Fabrikant murders of August 1992.

She was one of the principal authors of a protocol that provides a coordinated response across the university, an important legacy of that experience.
“Lots of people were trying to do things, but they were going in different directions,” she said. “Now the information is centralized, and the decisions are taken on the best available information.” She has had many requests for information from other universities as a result of the work done in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Both women work closely with other departments — Security (in Spilhaus’s case), Student Services and the Dean of Students and Legal Counsel. Robillard also works with faculty members, the vice-deans for student affairs and staff.
“A lot of time is spent defining the problem,” Robillard said. “Sometimes people come in with a huge problem that’s very vague, full of emotion and anger, and you have to bring it down to something that’s manageable. That takes time and experience and skill.”

Spilhaus added, “The difficulty, of course, is that initially, you’re reacting to one person’s side of the story.” When you get all the facts, things may look different.

“How you deal with these problems depends on the issue and the person’s motivation,” Robillard said. “In most of the 520 cases the Office dealt with last year, we simply provided information and advice about how to resolve a problem. In the other cases, we intervened on the person’s behalf or conducted a formal investigation and made recommendations.”

The complaints Spilhaus gets about conflict and behaviour have similarities, including a fair amount of cultural misunderstanding, but every emergency is unique. Some of these involve mental illness.

In the 120-odd situations she handles every year, only three or four end in a formal complaint. If the complaint is against a student, it goes to a student hearing board; if it’s against an employee, it is handled by the person who is responsible for discipline under that person’s collective agreement.

Robillard has only been at Concordia since February, when she replaced Suzanne Belson, who was in the position for more than 20 years. She is a social worker with legal training, and her previous experience was in the CLSC health and social service network. She has had to learn a lot about the academic subculture, its hierarchies and archaisms, but she loves the challenge of her work.
Spilhaus was the director of a women’s shelter before coming to the university in 1991 as Sexual Harassment Officer. In a post that at some other universities has been plagued with political naiveté and impulsiveness, she earned a reputation for strength, sensitivity and fairness, and has essentially created the expanded role she now occupies.

Her greatest satisfaction is to find that she has been a successful mentor. “I think the situations I like best are the ones where the student solves the problem with me doing the coaching. Then they can say, I learned something here.”
For more information, please consult the offices’ respective Web sites: http://www.concordia.ca/rights and http://relish.concordia.ca/Rights_Resp_Ombuds/ombuds.html