Lean on Me: David Pope

David Pope

Candace diCarlo

David Pope

We have written stories in these pages about all kinds of resources and services Penn offers employees who are having trouble on the job.

But even the most comprehensive problem resolution systems sometimes fail to resolve matters. When all else fails, there’s always the University Ombudsman.

The ombudsman—the word is a Swedish term meaning “man for all people”—helps Penn people with complaints that could not be handled through the usual channels. (Employees covered by collective bargaining agreements with formal dispute resolution mechanisms are excluded.) Any issue from job termination to promotion, benefits to financial aid, is fair game for the Ombudsman’s office, which seeks mutually agreeable solutions to problems. And sometimes people turn to the ombudsman just to vent frustrations.

It’s a job that calls for a patient person and a good listener, qualities the current ombudsman, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering David Pope, possesses in abundance. Pope, whose two-year term as ombudsman began July 1, sat down with the Current to talk about the job.

Q. What is an ombudsman?
It’s a very unusual position, the likes of which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the University. Our job is really to listen to people who have complaints about almost any subject, try to understand what the basis of that complaint is and then to investigate and see if there is merit to their complaint. If there is merit, then we help solve the complaint.

The other thing to remember is that we have no power other than moral suasion. We can’t compel anyone to do anything. People cooperate with us remarkably well because, I believe, they think we’re fair. But I couldn’t call up somebody and say, You come over here and bring so and so and so and so. I would say, Please, we’d like to talk to you, or something like that.

Q. What do you do when someone comes to you with a complaint?
There’s several pathways they could follow. Let’s say they have a generic complaint—one example is somebody who called me…and we talked about the trouble she was having and her job-related problems here at Penn, and simply talked about what her options are, and it went no further than that. That’s one example, where you just serve as a sounding board.

Another situation might be where a person may come in and just want to talk about their problems and have a sympathetic ear to explain it to. And you say, Well, it looks like this has some merit, I need your permission to go talk to the person about whom you’re complaining. And it’s not all that unusual for the person to say, No, I’d rather not do that right now, or This has been helpful in itself, I think I know what to do now.

And the third is that we ask for permission and it is granted. But we never talk to anyone about whom the person has complained unless the complainant says Yes, you may talk.

Then typically we would go back either to the complainant, or if this leads us to something else, someone else we should talk to, we sift through the information and then we go back to the complainant and we’ll say, This is what we’re doing.

Q. Are any types of complaints more common than others?
Yes. In fact, that’s the interesting thing about the way that Anita Summers [professor emeritus of business and public policy, Pope’s predecessor as ombudsman] documented the activities of the office.

The kinds of things that, quite happily, we don’t see a great deal of any more are things related to sexual harassment and harassment. It’s quite commonly either problems that are related to co-workers [or those] at different levels on the ladder that are just not getting along and have issues with each other, or people who believe that they have been transferred or dismissed improperly.

I believe Penn really does care about employees. They want their employees to feel valued, to be valued, and one reason that Penn supports this office and gives us all this independence—I report to no one. Absolutely no one. It’s improper for me to tell anyone about the details of any case. And so it’s rather shocking that I, as a professor of materials science, have this kind of power. I have the opportunity to help the University, but if I mess up, I have the opportunity to mess up pretty badly too.

Q. What led you to seek the position?
You know, I never sought the position. I never thought about it for a moment until the President’s Office called me one day and said the current ombudsman, Anita Summers’ term is coming to a close, they need an ombudsman, we’ve been asking around, your name keeps coming up, would you consider [it]? That’s literally how it happened. I never thought for a minute I would be ombudsman.

Q. So how’s the job gone so far?
I think it’s going pretty well. It’s not as difficult as I thought it was going to be, and of course, there’s no training manual that comes with the job. The training manual is really in the head of Gulbum O’Connor, who is the longtime associate ombudsman, and like so many things here at Penn, the professional staff person is the institutional memory of the office.

Most of it is just applied common sense. It involves just listening carefully with a sympathetic ear and trying to come to some rational conclusion. The only case where it gets complicated is interpreting University rules, but there are places to go for that. You don’t have to know all the rules, you just have to ask somebody who does know the rules.

Q. Have there been cases the ombudsman couldn’t resolve satisfactorily?
I’ve had some of those already. For example, somebody who believes there has been some [inappropriate] action taken.

A good case in point, and I can say this because it precedes my tenure as ombudsman, but when the University was outsourcing the facilities work, I know from talking to [O’Connor] that that was a very busy time in the office. And much of that angst was related to the fact that [the work] was being outsourced. I’m sure that many of those people came to the Ombudsman who in fact were not happy because the main thing they wanted was for it not to be outsourced.

Or say a student comes along and says, I have been terminated, allegedly for the following reasons, but everybody knows I’m a wonderful student. And then you go back to the department and you discover there’s all this stuff, and they did exactly the right thing. That student is unhappy. But that’s just the way it is.

Q. Are you glad you took the post?
Yes, I am, actually. Faculty members are not trained for anything other than to do research, right? [The ombudsman is always a member of the standing faculty.] I was trained to do research as a young person, and I was very eager and impatient and intolerant of lesser beings. Anybody with a problem, don’t tell me about it, that’s your problem, I’ve got work to do.

But somehow I’ve managed to evolve over my long tenure here at the University since 1968 to the point where I find myself in this position for which I’ve had no training, no experience and no manual, and I find that I can do it and I think it’s gone reasonably well. And I take a great deal of satisfaction in that.

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Originally published on December 11, 2003