Managing conflict: the Office of Rights and Responsibilities 

By Karen Herland

Overall, it might be a good thing if you don’t know about the university’s Office of Rights and Responsibilities. Knowing might suggest you have been involved in an interpersonal conflict on campus. But, on the other hand, it’s a good thing that the nearly 200 students, faculty and staff who needed support to handle such conflicts last year had somewhere to go.

“In a community of about 50 000 people, the majority of whom are young and passionate, it is inevitable that stuff is going to happen,” said Peter Côté, the university’s Advisor on Rights and Responsibilities. His job is to come up with some way to mediate those conflicts. “The real question is, ‘do you respond to it appropriately? Do you do your best to respect people and the institution?’”

Côté has just submitted the 2008-09 report of his office’s activities, available online at His job is to listen to any Concordia community member who feels threatened, harassed or discriminated against.

One of his first tasks is to determine whether the complaint is actually about the behaviour of another person or if the problem is linked to the application or interpretation of a policy or procedure. The latter conflicts are referred to the Ombuds Office, conveniently located next door to his in the GM building.

Once he has determined he is dealing with a behavioural conflict, he may simply advise the complainant on ways to defuse the situation or, with their authorization, contact the other person involved in the conflict or a third party (say the department chair in the case of a conflict between a student and professor) in order to resolve the issue.

The ideal outcome is “both parties go away reasonably satisfied that they’ve been heard and the matter has been resolved in a way that responds to their concerns.”

Of course, that is the ideal. Since the situations he deals with involve conflict, there may not always be a win-win resolution. Last year, 10% of the complaints treated by his office required a formal hearing or investigation.

Côté often works with security, human resources or the Office of General Counsel to resolve issues. As for conflicts between students, while some of them may relate to failed romances or personal disagreements, many of them are academic.

For instance, disagreements about responsibility and participation in group projects are a frequent cause of student conflict. “That has become such an important pedagogical tool,” said Côté. He added that departments need to be prepared to take responsibility if problems arise.

Côté took on this position in 2002, after serving in the Chaplaincy office. “I was recently asked why I would have made that move. Most of the time, I’m doing the same thing, trying to help people.”


Concordia University