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Report of the Ombudsman

A Two-Year Report by Anita A. Summers, University Ombudsman
2001-2003

This is a report on the activities of the Office of the Ombudsman for the academic years 2001-2002 and 2002-2003. The Office was staffed part-time by me, as University Ombudsman during my two-year appointment and by Dr. Gulbun O'Connor, the full-time Associate Ombudsman. Dr. O'Connor has served in this capacity for almost two decades and brings essential continuity, wide knowledge of the functioning of the University, and her own deep insights to the Office.  

The report divides into three parts. First, there are some general comments on the objectives and realities of the operation of the Office of the Ombudsman. Second, data are provided on characteristics of the complaints coming to the Office. Table 1 presents characteristics of the subject matter of the complaints. Table 2 presents characteristics of the complainants. And Table 3, new to these reports, presents data on the outcomes of the efforts of the Office and the time spent on these efforts.

The third section of the report summarizes the implications of the data and provides some observations on the University from the perspective of the Office of the Ombudsman.

I. Objectives and Realities

The activities of the Office of the Ombudsman should be put in its appropriate perspective: (1) It assists individuals in finding resolutions to problems that have not been resolved through normal channels. There are many conflict resolution mechanisms throughout the University of Pennsylvania--but, as in every large institution, not all of them work perfectly, and not everyone knows about them. (2) It hears complaints in complete confidentiality (unless criminal acts are revealed), and proceeds only with the approval of the complainant. (3) Frequently, the Office recommends changes in existing practices.

What does the Office of the Ombudsman not do? (1) It does not take on matters that are already in legal proceedings. (2) It is not an advocate for any individual or group, only seeking a resolution acceptable to both parties.  (3) It does not replace existing grievance mechanisms, but only supplements them.  

Penn is a large university, and it is inevitable that conflicts that appear to be unresolvable arise. We, of course, see many of these overheated situations. It is our job to lower the heat by bringing our insights to the problems so that both parties move to more temperate demands, and, by using our access to a wide number of faculty and administrators, help to bring resolution. It has been a source of real satisfaction to me to see how the overwhelming proportions of complainants and respondents, as they talk through the issues in a neutral environment, and listen to experienced perspectives, agree to work out solutions that are mutually acceptable. We spend considerate effort in suggesting reasonable resolutions and in negotiating these in explicit detail. With few exceptions, respondents--supervisors, faculty, deans, department chairs--have been responsive to our requests to meet with us and review alternative solutions.

However, not all complaints get resolved. Sometimes one of the parties is completely unyielding. Sometimes one of the parties has a mental health problem, and we do our best to be sensitive to the implications of the difficulty. It is not our role, of course, to diagnose--only in very obvious situations do we encourage the use of the University's mental health facilities.

II. Characteristics of the Complaints

What is the subject matter of the cases that present to the Office of the Ombudsman? As Table 1 clearly indicates, the overwhelmingly largest and constant proportion of the cases (around 42%) arise from nonacademic job-related issues--promotion, salary, and micromanagement by supervisors are examples. About 15-20% of the cases involve academic issues, most of which are procedural--graduate students not receiving the guidance they expect, and untenured faculty not receiving the mentoring and "rules of the game" they expect are examples. The total number of cases is fairly steady--varying between 5% and 10% from year to year.

Table 2 categorizes the complainants. About 60% arise from employees. In this last year, faculty (A2s) accounted for almost 20% of the complainants, as they did in 2000-2001 (not shown separately in the table). In other years, the percentage hovered around 10-12%. It is not clear whether or not this is a random spike or a trend, or what underlies the trend, if it is one. But, it might be a heads-up to note that a significantly increasing number of faculty complaints come from those holding associated faculty titles--such as adjunct, research, and clinical.

Student complaints constituted around 32% of the total for each of the academic years since 1997-1998, but dropped to 22% this past year--and dropped about 30% in absolute numbers. But one year does not a trend make! It may represent their increased satisfaction or it may be a random blip.        

How successful is the Office of the Ombudsman in "lowering the heat" on campus? Table 3 attempts to give some relevant data on the inputs (number of hours we spend on cases) and the outputs (type of result) for the last two academic years. Most cases--the approximately 80% of the cases that are inquiries handled by phone and complaints resolved through negotiation--are resolved taking less than 10 hours to bring to closure. A handful of additional cases were resolved using legal arrangements, or are expected to be resolved. Several cases were unresolved and negotiations continue. Some have already taken between 10 and 30 hours and some more than that! A number of cases were unresolved, but action is continuing elsewhere in the University. Finally, last year the Office undertook three investigations, and this past year two. We undertake these at the request of an administrator.  They are very time-consuming activities, well over 30 hours each (one, this past year took over 60 hours). However, they have the capacity to make a poorly functioning section of the University work much more smoothly. Each involves extensive investigation and interviews, and terminates in an advisory report. As with the individual cases, we have been appreciative of the extraordinary degree of cooperation and appreciation of those involved. 

III. Conclusions

The data and my qualitative observations suggest, quite clearly, that the overwhelming majority of cases coming to the Ombudsman's Office get resolved. Neither the complainant nor the respondent may be perfectly satisfied, but, they can both move on. The assurance of confidentiality and neutral evaluation of both sides of an issue appear to enable a negotiated resolution.

These negotiations reveal, overall, a few persistent trouble-making factors: (1) When letters of appointment are written in ambiguous terms (for example "in a few years you are expected to "), there will be conflict in many cases, when the employer thinks the employee is not meeting the expectation. We suggest a careful review of letters of appointment, with a review of the trade off between the advantages of discretionary vs. explicit language. (2) The importance of civil discourse between supervisor and employee should be emphasized in the appointments of every person placed in a supervisory position. Many cases arise because of harshness of manner, rather than from substance. (3) The expansion of the mental health outreach activities on campus are to be applauded. Increased efforts to draw people into the mental health help facilities when needed significantly reduces campus conflict.

One additional point involving the operation of the Office of the Ombudsman may be worth noting. The change of the University Ombudsman every two years insures a constant input of various faculty perspectives into the mediating process. However, the frequency of the change is, in my view, too great for the faculty contributions to have a lasting impact.

It is my not-at-arms-length conclusion from my two years as Ombudsman that the Office serves a unique and very constructive service to the University community.

Characteristics of Cases Handled by the
Office of the Ombudsman

Table 1. Number of Cases by Subject Matter, 1997-2003

Annual Average

 

Subject Matter

1997-2000

2001-02

2002-032

Nonacademic Job-related

70

72

66

Academic Issues:




     Procedural

21

30

14

     Academic

8

0

7

     Integrity

4

6

3

General Procedural

30

31

38

Discrimination

0

0

1

Sexual Harassment

3

5

1

Harassment

2

0

0

Financial Aid

2

3

1

Benefits

3

1

0

Miscellaneous/Personal

18

25

28





Total No. of Cases

161

173

159

No. of Male Complainants

n.a.

72

75

No. of Female Complainants

n.a.

101

84

 

Table 2: Characteristics of Status of Complainants, 1997-2003

Annual Average

 

Complainant

1997-2000

2001-02

2002-03

Employees:

93

97

102

     A2

21

18

30

     A1

42

46

47

     A3

28

30

24

     A5

2

3

1

Students:

50

51

35

Undergraduate

23

15

15

Graduate

27

36

20

Alumni

2

3

2

Other

16

22

20

Total

161

173

159

 

Table 3: Outcome of Complaints and Time Spent Cases by Office of Ombudsman, 2001-2003


Academic Year 2001-2002
Academic Year 2002-2003

Hours Spent on Cases

<10

10-30

>30

Total

<10

10-30

>30

Total

Inquiries Handled by Phone

80

0

0

80

81

0

0

81

Resolved Through Negotiation

62

3

0

65

43

8

1

52

Resolved Through Legal Arrangements

1

2

0

3

1

0

0

1

Unresolved, Expect Resolution

3

0

0

3

3

2

0

5

Unresolved, Continuing Negotiations

3

3

2

8

5

2

0

7

Unresolved, No Longer in Ombudsman's Office, continued active

11

0

0

11

8

3

0

11

Formal Investigation

0

0

3

3

0

0

2

2

Total Number of Cases
173
159

 

 


  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 6, September 30, 2003

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