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Report of the Ombudsman
November 21, 2006, Volume 53, No. 13

2003-2006
A Three-Year Report by David P. Pope, University Ombudsman

At the end of June 2006, I finished a three-year term as Penn Ombudsman and, as have all previous Ombudsmen, I am reporting to the Penn community about the activities of the office during my term. However, before I go into the details, I would like to say for the record that Penn is a remarkably caring and supportive institution. Since it is so large and diverse, many difficult problems do arise, but these are generally the result of unusual local circumstances and personalities. We find over and over again that Penn administrators, from office managers to the President are deeply concerned about all members of the community and invariably treat us with great respect when we come to them with problems. For that I am very grateful, and I hope that attitude will always be part of the Penn culture. This is how the Office of the Ombudsman continues to be effective.

The Ombudsman’s Office

The Office of the Ombudsman was established in 1971 to assist individuals in finding solutions to problems that they may not have been able to resolve through normal channels. It is staffed by two people, a permanent, full-time Associate Ombudsman, Dr. Gulbun O’Connor, who has served nobly in this position for many years and has trained many Ombudsmen; and an Ombudsman, a tenured faculty member who serves for a limited term.  The new Ombudsman is Professor John C. Keene.

We receive a wide array of complaints from students, faculty and staff about academic issues, promotion and tenure issues, salary issues, interpersonal issues, grading issues, and many more. We also serve as the contact for people outside the University, (parents, alumni, and former employees) who need help in addressing a concern, but don’t know where to go for help. For example, when restrictions on visas and border crossing became much tighter in recent years, we received calls from parents hoping we could put them in contact with someone within Penn who could help their children obtain their documents in a timely manner. In most cases we could and did.

The office is located in Duhring Wing (attached to the south end of the Fisher Fine Arts Library), and its services are open to any member of the Penn community, with the exception of unionized workers at Penn and the employees of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, simply by contacting the office and discussing the issue with the Ombudsman or Associate Ombudsman.

How Does the Office Operate?

Typically, a person will come to the office with a complaint or a concern. We tell the complainant that the conversation will be heard confidentially. We also say that we have no direct power to require anyone to do anything, even though we do have a great deal of moral authority. For example, Penn administrators seldom reject our suggestions. We listen to the complainant’s concerns, and then make suggestions about how to proceed. If, for example, the complaint is about treatment by a supervisor, we will ask the complainant for permission to speak to that supervisor to learn more about the issue from the supervisor’s perspective. We don’t speak to anyone about an issue without first receiving permission from the complainant.

In most cases the issue at hand involves only the complainant and the respondent, and in the vast majority of cases we can propose a solution that is acceptable to both sides, even though neither side is generally totally satisfied. Sometimes we hear complaints from groups of people who work in the same group or department and decide that the issue is much broader than the concerns of the individuals themselves. For example, many complainants may come to us independently regarding the activities of one particular individual. In such cases we will investigate, and if we cannot adequately address the issues, we will take the matter to the next level of administration, to the appropriate Dean, if necessary.

So, we listen, we evaluate, we summarize and we suggest. We never judge, dictate or order because we have no power to do such things. But in spite of our lack of power, the high regard of the Penn community for the Ombudsman’s Office allows us to sort out many truly difficult problems.

Typical Issues

We all too commonly deal with the problems caused by supervisors who have not evaluated their staff in a regular, timely and comprehensive manner. All staff, at all levels, are entitled to this. If they receive no criticism, then they have a right to believe that their performance is acceptable. We often hear from an employee that his/her supervisor has suddenly written an unsatisfactory review, with clear intent of eventual termination, even though the employee’s previous reviews showed no deficiencies. In these cases we can only meet with the supervisor and emphasize the importance of the review process and also recommend the various training programs available to the employee through Penn. Penn has well-developed personnel procedures that must be followed. Before I became Ombudsman I was extremely impatient with them, but now I see the wisdom of the system. The most critical time for this review process is during the probationary period of new personnel.

Sometimes the system breaks down, and a person who cannot perform adequately is made permanent. The supervisor commonly considers the procedure for building a case for termination to be too onerous, so other means are found to accommodate the person. The source of the difficulty quickly becomes obvious during our investigation, but by that time the solution is very difficult. It is in cases like this where our deep concern for members of the Penn community sometimes works against us as an institution. I can only make a plea to all supervisors and administrators to carefully evaluate all personnel in a timely manner. Even though the number of these cases is small, the institutional time and effort that go into them is disproportionate to the numbers.

We tend not to get involved in cases involving students, academic integrity and disciplinary cases, for example, except to check that proper procedures have been followed. We do receive complaints from students, and we do check into them, but not once in my three-year term did I ever find anything to criticize in the Office of Student Conduct. We also do not get involved in grading issues. Each School has its own internal procedures for dealing with grading disputes between students and faculty.

We receive complaints about research integrity, attribution and authorship, usually from post-doctoral research fellows and graduate students. These are especially difficult to address because they involve the inner workings of tightly knit research groups. Typical complaints concern the presentation of data at a scientific meeting by a senior member of the group without proper attribution to the person who actually performed the experiment, or representing the data in a manner the junior member of the team believes is not justified, or altering the final publication of the work without getting the approval of the junior member. Usually these problems result from a lack of sensitivity (commonly due to time pressures) by the senior member towards the legitimate concerns of the junior member. The only solution to this problem is for research group leaders to communicate often and openly with the members of their groups.

Very commonly we simply listen as a person describes the problems he/she is experiencing. We offer insights into how the problem might be addressed, and frequently the person will decide that the discussion itself has been sufficiently helpful that no further help from the Ombudsman’s office is required. These kinds of cases are especially rewarding.

I close with a new kind of issue concerning very senior faculty that has arisen with increasing frequency in recent years. It arises when a faculty member in one of the experimental sciences has lost all outside financial research support after a long, distinguished and well-supported research career. The Department Chair has decided that the faculty member’s research space should therefore be devoted to more productive uses, by a new faculty hire, for example. The faculty member knows that the loss of space signals the end of his/her laboratory research career, but the Chair, who is charged with rationally allocating this valuable resource, cannot simply let the space be underutilized. The issue then typically comes to the Ombudsman’s Office in the form of an age discrimination complaint. (I add parenthetically that such cases are especially vexatious to me as a faculty member ‘of a certain age’.) I can offer no general solution to the problem other than to ask that Department Chairs and Deans continue to be especially sensitive to the feelings and concerns of these long-time members of our faculty. The space must be reallocated, but the details of how it is done and how the subject is broached can make a world of difference.

Below is a summary of the statistics of the type and numbers of cases that have come to the office in the past three years.

Academic Year         2003-04 2004-05 2005-06
Total Cases 228 219 197
Categorized by Issues Raised      
Academic 12 8 11
Academic Integrity 13 9 8
Academic/Procedural 25 23 32
Facilities 2 4 0
Job Related 78 86 64
Job/Promotion 2 2 7
Procedural 54 39 39
Misc./Personal 32 33 21
Benefits 3 3 6
Student Financial Services 0 8 6
Discrimination 7 4 3
       
Categorized by Status of Complainant      
Employees and Others 154 163 133
   A1 58 67 45
   A3 21 16 20
   A5 4 4 1
   A2 24 28 34
     Arts and Sciences       3 7 4
     Medicine 13 16 16
     School of Design 1 1 4
     Wharton 1 2 1
     Veterinary Medicine 1 0 0
     Engineering 2 1 1
     Education 1 0 0
     Dental Medicine 1 1 3
     School of Social Policy & Practice 1 0 1
     Nursing 0 0 3
     Law 0 0 1
Post-Doctorates 5 4 5
Others (alumni, parents, etc.) 42 44 28
Students 74 56 64
Undergraduate 28 22 29
     Arts and Sciences 14 15 11
     Engineering 7 2 4
     College of General Studies 4 2 5
     Wharton 3 3 7
     Nursing 0 0 2    
Graduate 46 34 35
     Arts and Sciences 14 9 12
     Biomedical 6 4 2
     School of Design 3 0 2
     Education 4 4 5
     Engineering 5 2 1
     Law 2 2 2
     Nursing 4 2 7
     School of Social Policy & Practice 3 0 0
     Wharton 5 9 3
     Dental Medicine 0 1 1
     Veterinary Medicine 0 1 0

 

Almanac - November 21, 2006, Volume 53, No. 13