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October 24, 2002 Two programs offer choice of student advocates



by Melanie Takefman and Barbara Black

Concordia offers support to students facing institutional charges through its Student Advocate Program. Over the years, the student union has also advocated on behalf of students, but this year, the CSU “institutionalized” its activities as the Student Advocacy Centre.

The Student Advocate Program dates back to 1992. It is one of seven units in Advocacy and Support Services, all paid for out of student fees, and accountable to the Concordia Council for Student Life.

The students who seek advocacy may face charges under the university’s Code of Conduct (Academic) or Code of Rights and Responsibilities. Others may be seeking a grade re-evaluation or simply a consultation about a particular regulation.

Ralph Lee, VP academic of the student union, feels that advocacy should be done by the student union, not by the university. He compares it to a union representing employees vis-à-vis the employer. “We look at ourselves as more idealistic, as defense lawyers,” he said. Most of the students charged in the cancellation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on September 9 were defended by CSU advocates.

However, Ann Kerby, director of Advocacy and Support Services, said the Student Advocate Program also goes to bat for the student. “The university can be quite formidable when it makes an accusation against somebody. We make sure that the student has the checks and balances of due process.”

Lee and his fellow advocate, Jean-Marc Bouchard, often deal with complaints informally, and contend that the CSU service takes a more direct approach.

The Student Advocate Program also mediates wherever possible. Its student advocates are not only trained by professionals, they can tap the resources and vast experience of their sister units in Advocacy and Support Services, and they have access to over 10 years’ worth of cases.

Kerby said that before the CSU established its own centre, she had hired at least five outgoing VPs academic, because their advocacy through the CSU had given them good background.

Advocates from both services are trained in the nuances of the codes as well as in communication, justice and how to navigate Concordia’s bureaucracy. Bouchard was trained and worked for two years for Advocacy and Support Services before he went over to the CSU program.

Experiences of students who have dealt with one or both of the services vary. Two students, Michael and Jarred*, consulted both services after being charged with plagiarism for uncanny similarities in their chemistry assignments. Jarred said that the CSU talked negatively about the dean and informed them of certain regulations which proved untrue.

Furthermore, the CSU advocate told both students that the outcome is almost always the same for that charge and that attending their interview with the vice-dean would harm their case. Both students suggested that that the CSU advocate they consulted was defending his own agenda through the students being charged.

The two students met with a student advocate from the Advocacy and Support Services program. She urged them to pursue their case with an interview and verified details of the case that she was unsure of, Jarred said.

Ultimately, the charges were dismissed without a hearing.

Because the university advocate was so effective, Jarred doesn’t believe that two services are necessary, particularly when it comes to academic offenses. “She was there to protect our rights. She never had her own interests implicated in the case.” Michael disagreed. Having two advocacy services is “crucial to keep each other in check,” he said.

Advocacy & Support Services’ student advocate Jennifer Hopkins believes that her status as a student helps her sympathize with the person she is advocating, regardless of her employer. “I’ve had disagreements with the administration, and disagreeing is fine. I don’t use my job to make friends and connections. I do it because I like working with students.”

Like Hopkins, Ralph Lee finds his job rewarding. In fact, both advocates said that the fact of having a choice in advocacy is positive for students. Ann Kerby concurs: “This year, there’s been a lot of shopping around. A smart consumer shops around.”

Both services are focused on eliminating the overwhelmingly dominant charge against students, plagiarism. Both are collaborating with the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services and other campus resources to ensure that students are fully aware of the definition and consequences of plagiarism before having to procure the services of either advocacy office.

* Names of charged students have been changed for confidentiality.