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Report of the Ombudsman
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April 7, 2009, Volume 55, No. 28

Academic Year 2007-2008

John C. Keene, University Ombudsman

Every year, the University Ombudsman reports to the University on the office’s activities during the prior year, giving summary data on the types of complainants who consulted the office and a general idea of the variety of problems that concerned them. The report has two purposes: first, it is intended to inform those who are not familiar with the mission and modus operandi of the office, either because they are new to the University community or because they have been here for a while but have not had an occasion to learn much about how the office works; second, it seeks to summarize some of the major types of issues that have come before us.

We are fortunate to have Michele Goldfarb as the new Associate Ombudsman. In July 2008, she succeeded Gulbun O’Connor who retired after more than 20 years of dedicated and able service to the University community. After serving as an Assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., and an assistant district attorney in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, Ms. Goldfarb clerked for Judge Phyllis Beck, a member of the Pennsylvania Superior Court. She came to Penn in 1995 where she served for 11 years as director of the Office of Student Conduct. In 2007, she became Director of the Women’s Center, a position she held until her appointment as Associate Ombudsman. She is a member of the adjunct clinical faculty at the Law School, teaching and supervising Penn law students in two comprehensive clinical courses, Civil Practice Clinic and Mediation Clinic, subjects that reflect her long interest in methods of conflict avoidance and resolution. She has served on a number of University committees concerned with developing policy in areas such as academic integrity, substance abuse, and confidentiality of student records.

An Historical Note
The word, “Ombudsman” is Swedish and means “representative.” It is not gender specific. In 1809, the Swedish government created the first modern Ombudsman’s office, although the idea for the office goes back at least as far as the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. The Ombudsman is an “official appointed to safeguard citizens’ rights by investigating complaints of injustice made against the government or its employees,” (Philip’s Millennium Encyclopedia). Several European countries have appointed national ombudsmen, relatively senior and respected officials who have access to all levels of government, from the prime minister, through the heads of ministries, to directors of lower level administrative agencies, and can cut through red tape and work out resolution of problems relatively expeditiously. Since the 1950s, many states, universities, and businesses have created ombudsman offices.

Penn’s Office of University Ombudsman
The University of Pennsylvania established the Office of University Ombudsman in 1971. It is staffed by the University Ombudsman (part-time), a tenured faculty member, and the Associate Ombudsman (full-time). The administration sought to create an innovative way of addressing the complaints of faculty, staff, and students of unfairness or failure to follow university policies and procedures. Penn’s Ombudsman has direct access to all levels of the University administration from the President and the Provost through the Deans, Vice Presidents, chairs, professors, department heads, and directors, to all the other people on campus with responsibility for the work, educational, residential, and recreational environments of faculty, staff and students. 

The driving concept of the office is that, if an individual believes that he or she has not been treated fairly and the regular procedures do not appear to be leading to an acceptable resolution, he or she can come to the Ombudsman and lay out the facts underlying the complaint. The Ombudsman can help the complainant clarify his or her goals, discuss possible avenues that might be available for resolving the issue, and map out appropriate strategies. With the complainant’s authorization, the Ombudsman will undertake an independent investigation of the matter in order to develop an objective, impartial understanding of exactly what had happened, and then to propose some method of resolving the dispute.  The Ombudsman has no power to order any individual to take a given action: He or she relies on a clear summary of the facts and an exposition of the competing considerations underlying each side’s position as the basis for working out a satisfactory solution. 

Who May Consult the Ombudsman?
All members—faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students and alumni—of the University community may avail themselves of the services of the Ombudsman, except for employees of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and members of a labor union, who have their own grievance procedures. The office is located in the Duhring Wing of the Fisher Fine Arts Library on 34th Street, just north of the Irvine Auditorium.

How the Office Operates
During the first meeting with the prospective complainant, we explain the purpose of the office and the procedures we follow, emphasizing that the discussion will remain confidential if the complaint so wishes (unless the discussions reveal possible criminal conduct, actions that might be the basis for legal liability on the part of the University, or a threat of imminent danger to an individual). We then seek to understand the nature of the dispute as fully as possible. The discussion may end there with a consideration of what remedies may be available to the complaint or what strategies he or she may wish to follow to try to resolve the conflict.  However, if the complainant wishes to proceed with an investigation, we will meet with the other people involved in the controversy to get as complete an understanding as possible of the facts underlying the problem and the University policies that govern it. We then meet with the complainant to decide on the next steps to be taken.

Most Frequently Raised Issues; Types of Complainants
The data summarizing the types of cases and classes of complaints for the last three years appear in the tables accompanying this report.  The distributions of both the types of complaints and the classes of complainants have held fairly stable over the last three years.

Issues Raised: Approximate Percentage of Total

Employment Procedures

37%

Improper Procedures

19%

Academic Procedures

13%

Academic Integrity

  5%

Academic Issues

  4%

Collections

  3%

Benefits

  2%

Discrimination

  1%

Promotion

  1%

Student Services

  1%

Miscellaneous

14%

 

 

Complainants: Approximate Percentage of Total

A-1 Employees

27%

Graduate Students

17%

A-2 Employees

13%

Undergraduates

11%

A-3 Employees

10%

Post-docs

  2%

Other

20%

A few comments are in order. These general distributions and the broad categories in the tables that accompany this report mask the variety and degrees of complexity that characterize individual cases.  Each case is, of course, unique, and yet it is desirable to look for trends that may indicate some systemic malfunction, or a particular area within the university that is not being well-managed. When we seek to identify trends, however, we encounter a problem. The fact that the Ombudsman’s Office observes a detectable trend in the types of complaints that are brought to it does not mean that there is a similar trend across the University as a whole. There are many offices across the University that deal with similar kinds of cases so that the variation might be attributable to the fact that complainants have consulted other persons or offices at different rates.

A review of the data over the last decade indicates that there have been no significant changes in the broad distribution of types of cases during that period. I think it is worth mentioning that discrimination cases have constituted only about 1% of the total caseload in the last three years, probably because other offices, such as the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity, are the primary actors in the area. Also, fewer students have come to the Ombudsman’s office than was the case more than ten years ago. The University has instituted more effective advising procedures over the years so that there are fewer conflicts between students and their professors, and the word has gotten out that the Office does not handle grade disputes, only complaints about unfair or unannounced procedures.

I continue to be impressed with the importance of supervisors’ making careful annual performance evaluations (following the procedures set out in Human Resources Division Policy #619) and observing both the letter and the spirit of the University’s progressive disciplinary procedures (set out in Human Resources Division Policy #621). It is inevitable, in a University as large and complex as Penn, that there are either supervisors who are not good managers or employees who are not adequately qualified for the position for which they were hired. Personalities may be incompatible. The evaluations allow the supervisor and employee to interact with each other and both encourage better performance and forestall inappropriate terminations.  In the case of faculty members, these experiences demonstrate the importance of thoughtful mentoring of junior faculty by senior faculty and department heads.

Several of the cases the office dealt with in 2007-2008 revealed the complexity and multiplicity of the policies and practices the University has adopted, as well as the complicated set of statutory and regulatory norms that govern its operations. The University administration has published Principles of Responsible Conduct (available on the website of the Office of Audit, Compliance, and Privacy). This document seeks to synthesize dozens of policies and legal obligations, into ten overarching principles covering concerns such as Ethical and Responsible Conduct, Respect for Others in the Workplace, Avoidance of Conflict of Interest, Responsible Conduct in Research, Environmental Health and Policy, Respect for Privacy and Confidentiality, and Responsible Reporting of Suspected Violations and Institutional Response. The statement warrants study. It also confirms that the administration must pay continuing and careful attention to keeping its policies up to date, insuring that they are clearly organized and accessible to those who must consult them. The U.S. Government’s Code of Federal Regulations performs a similar function, as it draws together in one accessible publication all the administrative regulations of federal agencies and keeps them current as changes are made. It may serve as a useful model that could be adapted to the particular circumstances and needs of the University.

Several of the cases that our office dealt with last year raised the specter of retaliation against the person making the complaint or against a member of his or her family who was also an employee at the University. Recently the Administration re-promulgated its policy against retaliation (Almanac  March 3, 2009). Recognizing the importance of internal reporting of possible violations of legal and University norms, the policy reaffirms that the University prohibits retaliation against those who make bona fide reports of possible non-compliance. It also prohibits knowingly making a false report. The policy spells out clearly the types of reports it covers, the types of retaliation it prohibits, and the classes of individuals it protects.

Formal and Informal Dispute Resolution Procedures
Over the years, the University has developed a complex system of informal methods of resolving disputes, procedures that are designed first to determine the facts underlying a particular dispute and, second, to apply University norms and policies to these facts to resolve the dispute. The University Ombudsman’s Office is one of the places where, as we have said above, people who believe they are not receiving fair or proper treatment can go to get advice as to what options are available to them and to learn about what strategies they may pursue to deal with the issues that confront them. The other major offices where informal resolution of disputes may occur include the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Programs, the Division of Human Resources’ Workplace Issue Resolution Program, the Office of Student Disabilities Services, the University Mediation Program for violations of the Code of Student Conduct, the University Life Division in the Vice Provost for University Life’s Office, the Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of the University Chaplain, the Division of Public Safety’s Office of Special Services, and the administrators of the various dispute resolution procedures available in schools and academic departments.

Taken together with more formal quasi-judicial procedures, such as those for imposing sanctions on faculty, the Faculty Grievance Procedure, the Staff Grievance Procedure, and the formal procedures specified by the Charter of the University’s Student Disciplinary System, these methods and the administrative divisions, committees, and commissions that administer them constitute the judicial function of the University.

Three Years of Experience in the Ombudsman’s Office

2005-2008

Types of Complaints
Issue

2005-06

2006-07

2007-08

Employment Problems

64

77

75

Academic Procedures

32

25

39

Miscellaneous/Personal

21

30

33

Other Procedures

39

36

32

Academic Integrity

8

12

8

Collections/Financial Services

6

5

8

Student Conduct Office

0

0

3

Student Health Insurance

0

0

2

Discrimination

3

2

1

Academic

11

1

0

Promotion Problems

7

0

0

Benefits

6

4

0

Sexual harassment

0

0

0

Total

197

192

201

 

Types of Complainants

Affiliation

2005-06

2006-07

2007-08

Graduate Students

 

 

 

    Arts and Sciences

12

6

10

    Biomedical

2

4

1

    SEAS

1

3

0

    Wharton MBA and PhD

3

6

4

    Nursing

7

4

1

    Law

2

2

0

    Dental

1

0

4

    CGS (now LPS)

0

0

2

    Veterinary Medicine

0

0

0

    Medicine

0

0

1

    Design

2

1

2

    GSE

5

1

3

Total, graduate students

35

27

28

Undergraduate Students

 

 

 

    Arts and Sciences

11

12

14

    Nursing

2

4

4

    Engineering

4

0

4

    College of General Studies

5

3

2

    Wharton

7

2

10

Total, undergraduate students

29

21

34

A-1 Personnel

45

57

48

A-2 Personnel (Faculty)

34

22

27

    Medicine

16

10

14

    Arts and Sciences

4

4

5

    SEAS

1

2

2

    Dental

3

2

2

    Annenberg

0

0

1

    Wharton

1

2

0

    Veterinary Medicine

0

1

3

    Social Policy & Practice

1

1

0

    Nursing

3

0

0

    Design

4

0

0

    Law

1

0

0

A-3 Personnel (monthly paid)

20

24

22

A-5 Personnel (weekly paid)

1

4

1

Others

28

27

32

Alumni/ae

0

6

5

Post-docs.

5

4

4

     Total

197

192

201

 

Almanac - April 7, 2009, Volume 55, No. 28