The University Record, February 8, 1993

Unit ‘ombuds’ to provide an ear, advocacy for faculty

By Mary Jo Frank

A listening ear and advocacy, when needed, are now available at the school and college level for faculty involved in University-related disputes.

The role of the new faculty ombudspersons, dubbed ombuds, is to provide “faculty colleagues with access to a prompt, impartial and confidential means for resolving differences apart from the formal grievance procedures,” according to a letter recently sent to the ombuds by the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) office.

Complaints ombuds are likely to deal with are in the areas of retention and tenure, promotion, salary, working conditions and general climate issues, academic freedom, credit for work done, and harassment by senior or peer colleagues.

No one event precipitated the move to appoint ombuds in each of the schools and colleges, according to SACUA Chair Ejner J. Jensen. LS&A and the Medical School have had ombudsmen for a number of years.

“In my judgment, there is a sense that rules and practices aren’t as consistent across units as they might be. Having ombuds in touch with one another helps ensure that faculty are treated fairly and equally,” Jensen explains.

In a university the size of the U-M, conflicts are likely to arise fairly often, he notes, because it is a complex organization.

In 1989, a Senate Assembly task force established to review faculty grievance procedures found that most disputes are settled by the informal means rather than the formal elements of the grievance procedures.

The task force recommended that the University develop a central ombuds office to which all faculty would have access.

A second task force, charged in 1991 to study the possibility of establishing an ombuds office, reported last year that a central faculty ombud position was probably not workable.

After consulting with Provost Gilbert R. Whitaker Jr., SACUA decided instead to establish a faculty ombud position in each school and college.

Ombuds can be a useful way for faculty to resolve concerns and thereby improve the enviornment for teaching and scholarship, Whitaker says.

Jensen says an ombud should be a good listener who can keep confidential matters confidential and who has the respect of both faculty and the administration. Ombuds need to be willing to make decisions and to be able to persuade the administration that their decisions are based on facts, Jensen adds.

Jayne Thorson, executive assistant to SACUA and coordinator of the ombuds effort, says the SACUA office held an orientation session for the new ombuds and is scheduling future workshops on such topics as sexual harassment, handling grievances and conflict resolution.

Ombuds selection and terms of office are up to individual schools and colleges. Some are elected by their faculty colleagues. Others are selected by the dean or executive committee. Ombuds are not paid for their services.

The SACUA office is asking ombuds to file case reports on their activities so SACUA can learn about the nature of cases and resolution. The case reports will not provide enough information to identify individuals.

At the orientation session, the new ombuds were told their primary function “is to protect the interests and rights of faculty from injustices or abuses of discretion; from unnecessary delay and complication in administration of rules and regulations; and from inconsistency, unresponsiveness and discrimination in all levels of the University’s operations and programs.”

Ombuds don’t replace or supersede regular University grievance or appeal procedures such as those found in the Standard Practice Guide. They are designed to enhance and supplement formal procedures, according to SACUA.

SACUA suggests faculty ombuds be as independent as possible within the college or school, avoiding conflicts of interest, external control and either the reality or appearance of being compromised. Ombuds are not supposed to serve on any committee or body within the school or college that is part of the formal grievance mechanism.

SACUA has suggested ombuds pair up with each other so they can stand in for one another when handling cases where it may be difficult for the ombud to remain impartial.

Although the ombuds are operating without hierarchical authority, they do have the power of observation, moral persuasion, reason, access to people and records, and the power to report, according to a SACUA statement outlining the role of the ombuds.

“We hope that your invocation of these humane powers will protect individuals from the unfortunate inconsistencies, unresponsiveness and discrimination sometimes found in large institutions like the University of Michigan,” the statement says.

Thorson says a letter is being sent to all deans about the new ombuds program. For more information or to obtain the name of the ombud for a particular school or college, call the SACUA office, 764-0303.