The University Record, February 8, 1993

Knowing ins and outs of U make mediation, counseling easier

For a quarter of a century Wilfred Kaplan and other members of the U-M chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have served as a faculty resource—ready to listen to and assist with employment-related problems.

Kaplan, professor emeritus of mathematics, thinks the idea of having an ombud in each school and college is good.

The advantage, he says, is that they can do things that are more difficult for an outside group like the AAUP. The new ombuds will be better received by deans, Kaplan predicts.

As AAUP’s executive secretary, Kaplan deals with a variety of complaints, the most frequent being denial of tenure and promotion. He has also worked with faculty who felt they were not given fair notice that they would not receive tenure, tenured faculty who were not offered full privileges such as office space, and contract issues in which promises were made but not kept. He estimates the AAUP receives four to five complaints annually.

Kaplan says the new ombuds need to be successful mediators. They also should be familiar with University rules, especially Regents’ Bylaws, and rules within the college or school in which they serve. Familiarity with AAUP policies is helpful, Kaplan says, because they serve as good guidelines and many administrators try to follow them.

Physics Prof. Jens C. Zorn, who served three terms as LS&A’s ombudsman, says he never spent more than three or four hours a week on those duties.

The complaints he received most frequently were about non-promotion, followed by complaints about working conditions and conditions of re-employment for lecturers, and research integrity disputes between faculty members and between faculty and research assistants.

Because of administrative posts he has held in the College and familiarity with the promotion process, Zorn says he was able to explain to junior faculty how a bureaucratic mind would support non-promotion.

Citing a lot of misinformation among junior faculty about the promotion process, Zorn says sometimes he suggested strategies to help the faculty member improve chances of promotion.

In some cases the faculty member still was fired, “but at least they didn’t bring a lawsuit. When faculty sue the University, they fall into a morass,” Zorn says. “They never win, and it completely derails them. I tried to help people step around that.”

The toughest part of being an ombudsman, Zorn says, is “coming face to face with the fact that the world is a tough place, including the University. There are good people who for various reasons are not going to get what they would like.”

Sociology Prof. Gayl D. Ness, who served as ombudsman in LS&A in the 1970s, agrees that one of the hard parts of the job is “looking at all the dirt of the University. You find grievances where people are treated very badly and where there is almost no recourse. It can be mean and brutish.”

In the 1970s, Ness says, the AAUP was getting five to 10 times the number of inquiries as the ombudsman. Faculty may feel when they do have a grievance that they aren’t going to get a decent hearing within the system, Ness says. “My sense is that they are pretty correct in that.”

If he had a personal grievance, Ness says he would first go to his department chair because he believes that within the Department of Sociology the chairs have been willing to listen.

When pathology Prof. Gerald D. Abrams, one of two ombuds in the Medical School, talks with faculty about work-related problems, he often suggests that they start by talking to their department chair.

Abrams says he receives few complaints, only four calls in the last year. One was resolved very quickly, another is still in progress and a couple will never be resolved, predicts Abrams, who has served as ombudsman on and off for more than a decade.

He thinks it is helpful to have someone serving as an ombud. “It’s a good thing for the faculty to have people they can call, a friend to talk to, someone who has access to which buttons to push.”