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Meet U of T's new ombudsperson: Ellen Hodnett

“When you have more than 80,000 students and 13,000 faculty and staff, you need a place for people to go if they’re unsure or they think that something has happened that isn’t right,” says Ellen Hodnett

Professor Emeritus Ellen Hodnett had two pieces of advice when she addressed graduating students at the University of Toronto last year: don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone when you see a great opportunity and, no matter what you do, try to make it better.

This year, Hodnett took her own advice and agreed to become U of T’s new ombudsperson, replacing Joan Foley, who is retiring after eight years in the position.

Hodnett becomes the new ombudsperson on July 1. For her, it’s just the latest of several different careers at U of T that began in 1975. Besides teaching in the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing for 39 years, she was appointed to the first nursing research chair in Canada in 1996, served as chair of U of T’s Academic Board and on Governing Council, and sat on important international and national research advisory groups. She’s also done extensive research on care for childbearing women. 

But being appointed to replace Foley is definitely a “jump outside of my comfort zone,” she says. “The contributions she made at so many levels at U of T have been extraordinary.” (Read more about Joan Foley and her 50 years at U of T.)

However, Hodnett is prepared to accept the challenge. “It’s an opportunity to continue to be associated with governance at U of T, which I love, and to try to make it a little better place.”

The ombudsperson helps members of the university community by identifying options, explaining university policies, providing neutral advice and assisting parties to resolve disputes. (For more on the role, visit the ombudsperson website.)

It’s a “tremendously important position” that ensures the system is working properly and that people are treated fairly, says Hodnett.

“When you have more than 80,000 students and 13,000 faculty and staff, you need a place for people to go if they’re unsure or they think that something has happened that isn’t right.”

Hodnett feels the job will only grow in importance over the years, as the university gets bigger and more complex. But she says her job will be made easier by the office’s professional staff, led by assistant ombudsperson Garvin De Four.

“I feel very confident because the office itself runs so well. The people are so experienced that they can teach me a lot.”

Foley says Hodnett will do an excellent job. “Ellen comes in with very relevant experience for the role, particularly her lengthy period on the governing council and her chairing of the academic board.” Her only advice for her successor is to keep an open mind and be interested.

“The defining feature of the role is its neutrality,” Foley says. “The office is not an advocate for either a complainant or the institution so it can give useful advice to both parties, thereby assisting the individual member of the University to address the problem constructively and effectively, and at the same time contributing to the evolution and improvement of University policies and practices.”

As for her own future, Foley is open to whatever the future brings. “I haven’t anything particular in mind except that I need to spring-clean my apartment. But I know that I’ll need more to challenge me than gardening, crossword puzzles, Scrabble and tennis. I’m open to whatever presents itself. It’s always worked out in the past and I’m sure it’ll work out in the future.”

The Office of the Ombudsperson promises confidential, impartial, independent and accessible services. You can contact the office by phone (416- 946-3485), email (ombuds.person@utoronto.ca) or online at http://www.utoronto.ca/ombudsperson/ombuds_assist.html.