‘A lasting impact’: Ellen Hodnett retires as ombudsperson after 45-year U of T career

Ellen Hodnett

Ellen Hodnett, who taught in the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing for 39 years, has led U of T's independent Office of the Ombudsperson since 2015 (Photo by Johnny Guatto)

Professor Emeritus Ellen Hodnett is completing her final term as the University of Toronto’s ombudsperson, drawing the curtain on an illustrious career at the university that spanned more than 45 years.

Hodnett has led the Office of the Ombudsperson – an independent office that’s devoted to helping students, staff, faculty and alumni with complaints and disputes in a neutral capacity – since 2015. She previously served as a teaching staff member of U of T’s Governing Council and was chair of the academic board for four years.

A registered nurse, Hodnett taught in the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing for 39 years, carrying out highly influential research on care for childbearing women and the impact of health-care environments on patient outcomes.

She was appointed Canada’s first nursing research chair in 1996 and retired as a professor in 2014.

“I thought that was it – great career, loved every minute of it, and I’m retired now,” Hodnett says. “So, I was surprised when I came back a year later for a different kind of career as an ombudsperson. It’s been both challenging and rewarding – not always easy, of course, because the role is one where you’re in a liminal space, on the outside looking in, always with an eye towards fairness.

“I’ve really enjoyed and appreciated the role. The opportunities to work with so many fantastic people among the staff in the ombud’s office, Governing Council and the wider U of T community has been a really nice end to my professional life.”

Established in 1975, U of T’s Office of the Ombudsperson operates independently of the university’s administration and helps members of the community deal with issues and complaints when all other avenues have been exhausted. All matters brought to the office are kept confidential, unless complainants agree otherwise.

The ombudsperson also issues annual reports that highlight statistics about the number of cases dealt with by the office and trends with regards to the types of complaints being filed and the type of complainants – students, staff and faculty – who are filing them. The office also alerts Governing Council and university leadership of systemic issues that merit review and offers its recommendations.

Hodnett’s term as ombudsperson officially ended June 30. She will be succeeded by Bruce Kidd, professor emeritus in the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education and former vice-president and principal of U of T Scarborough.

Cheryl Regehr, U of T’s vice-president and provost, hailed Hodnett’s “profound impact” on U of T over the years.

“I’m inspired by Professor Hodnett’s service to the university, and by her many accomplishments. As professor of nursing, her rigorous research on forms of care for childbearing women influenced care standards around the world,” says Regehr, who describes Hodnett as a “true trailblazer for women in health” and a “dynamic and motivating force” for her students.

“As ombudsperson, she has approached challenging situations with care, compassion, professionalism and empathy. Over the course of her six years in this vital position, Professor Hodnett has brought her unfailing wisdom to the office, to the benefit of all.

“Throughout this time, and indeed, in all her pursuits at the university, she has been resolute in her commitment to making the university the best place it can be – for students, faculty, alumni, and staff. I am extremely grateful for her service, and her immense contributions to U of T as ombudsperson, as a scholar and researcher, and as a committed part of our institution’s governance.”

Claire Kennedy, outgoing chair of U of T’s Governing Council – to which the ombudsperson reports – says Hodnett left her mark on the university through her work in the office.

“Ellen has brought a wealth of experience and wisdom to the role,” said Kennedy, who presided over her final meeting as chair on June 24. “Her exemplary service as ombudsperson will have a lasting impact on the fabric of U of T.”

One of Hodnett’s most significant moves as ombudsperson was to advocate for the expansion of the office’s presence to all three campuses, with the appointment of dedicated ombuds officers at U of T Mississauga and U of T Scarborough.

“I was concerned that we weren’t meeting the needs of UTM and UTSC well enough by being an office that was solely on the St. George campus,” Hodnett says. “What we needed were people who were rooted in those two campuses to be able to effectively provide ombudsperson services.”

Hodnett was also a big proponent of communication. In her annual report covering the 2019-2020 academic year, Hodnett focused all of her recommendations on the theme of providing information digitally – for example: urging divisions to provide easily accessible guidance on academic appeals processes on their websites and improving responsiveness to emails.

“This turned out to be even more important during the pandemic when everything was happening remotely,” she says. “It wasn’t like you could wander down somebody’s hallway and say ‘I have this concern; to whom should I speak?’”

For Hodnett, good communication is vital not only to resolving issues but to prevent them from happening in the first place. “I’m a firm believer that a little bit of primary prevention goes a very long way,” she says, with a nod to her nursing background.

And a vital part of communication, Hodnett says, is being a good listener.

“We may be able to conclude very early on that there was no unfair treatment or unfair application of a policy, but the person needs to be heard,” she says. “Simply listening sympathetically and then explaining why we can or cannot help, or what we think has happened, can defuse a lot of situations well before they become big problems.”

Yet, while ombuds officers are always willing to lend an ear, not enough people take advantage of them, according to Hodnett – particularly staff and faculty. 

“Students have always come to us for assistance, but it’s been a challenge to reach out to faculty and staff to make sure they know we exist, and that we can help them when they face difficult situations,” Hodnett says.

“More work needs to be done to make sure they know that we may be able to help with situations that are not covered by union or association agreements.”

Hodnett says all members of the U of T community should feel free to bring their problems to the Office of the Ombudsperson – even if they’re not entirely sure that it’s the appropriate venue to discuss their particular concern or issue.

“Anyone with a question – no matter how silly or how complicated they think it might be – shouldn’t hesitate to contact the Office of the Ombudsperson. They’ll always get a very quick reply and an attempt to help,” she says. “If the person’s concern does not fit within our terms of reference, we don’t simply say, ‘Oh that’s too bad.’ We always try to find someone who can help.

“I know Professor Kidd will be very much aligned with that idea as well – that no matter what your concern, it never hurts to ask us. We may be able to point you very quickly in the right direction to get your concern addressed.”

As Hodnett prepares to hand over her responsibilities, she says she will reflect on her work as ombudsperson – issues handled, recommendations made – with satisfaction.

“They were, at least, a real attempt to make a great university maybe a bit better in some of its practices and policies,” she says.

As for her plans for retired life, Hodnett is looking forward to spending more time with family, traveling, reading and playing the piano. But she also wants to draw on her nursing experience to continue helping people.

“I hope to be able to help in some way with the vaccine clinics,” she says. “I’d like to think I’ll find a way to still do a little bit of good while I’m also enjoying life.”