Two-Year Report by Walter D. Wales, University Ombudsman, 1999-2001
report is both an informal account of my impressions during my
two-year term as Ombudsman and a formal record of the cases that
have come through the Office of the Ombudsman during that term.
This account must be prefaced with a statement of my own gratitude
to my colleague Gulbun O'Connor. Dr. O'Connor, with her long experience
as Associate Ombudsman, has provided essential continuity within
the Office. Her insight into the operations of the University
and her sound judgement not only made my work much easier, but
have been the key elements in the successful operation of the
the outset it must be noted that the Office of the Ombudsman has
a purely reactive role at the University. The Office neither sets
nor enforces policies. Individuals who feel that they have been--or
are going to be--treated improperly seek out the services of the
Office. The Office attempts to find redress for those complaints
if--and only if--the individual allows the Office to contact those
against whom the compliant is made. The Office has no formal authority,
but relies primarily on the goodwill of the individuals with whom
it interacts. The Office serves in many ways as a "court
of last resort"--at least within the University--for individuals
whose problems have not been satisfactorily addressed by other
offices of the University.
University is, on balance, a community in which most units work
effectively and in which most of the members of that community
are relatively productive and satisfied. However, it is probably
inevitable, given the function of the Ombudsman's Office, that
the picture of the University that is presented to us is frequently
an unflattering one. We focus on the frayed edges of the fabric
of the University, where individual units do not always function
well and where individuals are often neither productive nor satisfied.
Worse yet, too often problems reach us at a stage when an impasse
has already been reached, and our efforts to find mutually-satisfactory
resolutions to those problems are not successful.
between supervisor and employee were more numerous than I had
anticipated. Although in some cases the employee and the job were
simply mismatched, in many cases the supervisors appeared to lack
the ability to help a less-than-perfect employee become an effective
contributor and sought instead to solve the difficulty by replacing
the employee. In too many of such cases the supervisors appeared
to lack the ability to lead and depended instead on their authority
to command. It is possible that in some cases the "Peter
Principle" had resulted in very able employees being given
managerial responsibilities for which they lacked both aptitude
the most distressing conflicts which come to the Office are those
that occur between a graduate student and that graduate student's
mentor. Most graduate student-mentor relationships are very close
and productive--indeed, I suspect that most of our graduate alumni
recall those relationships as among the most stimulating and productive
relationships in their lives. It is therefore particularly distressing
to see the few cases where breakdowns occur--even more so because
those breakdowns can seldom be repaired. Unfortunately, I did
not discern any pattern that would be helpful in either predicting
or preventing future breakdowns.
sample of cases that come to the Office of the Ombudsman seems
relatively small considering the overall size of the University.
Since the sample is also very biased toward dysfunctional relationships
it probably represents a few freckles on an otherwise healthy
system rather than a festering blotch heralding melanoma. I did
get a sense that many parts of the University are moving closer
to a corporate style of management. If this is indeed the case
it may make the operation of the University more efficient. However,
it may also cost the University part of the reputation that has
made it one of the most desired employers in the region.
the Office was not always able to find satisfactory solutions
to the problems that were brought there, it would have been easy
to become discouraged--and indeed I did so quite regularly. One
of the aspects of the work that made it much more gratifying than
it might have been, however, was the positive attitudes of everyone--both
complainants and those complained of--with whom we worked. They
treated us with unfailing courtesy and they gave the Office consistent
respect. I am grateful to all of them for helping the Office provide
the service the University expects.
data in the table (below) represent
three different periods of time. The first column at the left
is included to provide a baseline for comparison. The figures
in this column are annual averages over the three-year period
from 1992 to 1995. The figures for those individual years were
reported--with some minor differences in categorization--in the
fall of 1995. The next columns--1995-96 through 1998-99--are data
from past years that have not previously been reported. The final
two columns are data for the two years of my term as Ombudsman.
The records in all cases reflect cases initiated between September
1 and August 31 of the specified time interval.
most striking feature of the overall table is the pronounced drop
in the number of cases from the 1992-1995 average to 1997-98.
This drop occurs across all categories, but is most striking for
graduate students. While there has been a small increase since
then the recent totals remain less than two-thirds the 1992-95
is no obvious explanation for the decrease. On the supply side
one might speculate that the University's personnel practices
underwent a remarkable transformation during the period. On the
demand side one might speculate that the availability of the services
of the Ombudsman's Office has not been widely recognized by changing
populations such as graduate students. I know of no reason to
believe that either of these speculations has any basis in reality,
nor do I have any other explanation for the decrease. I leave
it as a mystery to be solved by agents more perceptive and energetic
than I am.