University Ombudsperson Report 2015-2016

Senate Council
October 4, 2016

Introduction

On March 31, 1998, the Senate Committee on Committees and Rules established the position of University Faculty Ombudsperson and defined its duties:

“The University Faculty Ombudsman shall coordinate the training of all college and campus ombudsmen; shall provide for the appropriate dissemination of information among the various college and campus ombudsmen; and shall be the university-level contact for the various college and campus ombudsmen. The University Ombudsman shall report periodically to the Senate Council and shall maintain liaison with the Office of the University Provost, the Office of Human Resources and the Senate Office. The University Ombudsman shall have no appeal function” (Standing Rules, Article III, Section 9).

This report is submitted to Senate Council to review the effectiveness of the Ombudsperson process at Penn State, identify challenges to the process, and suggest measures to improve the process. It may also be helpful to college and campus Ombudspersons who would like to know more about the scope of issues ombudspersons dealt with during the past academic year.

In order to assess the Ombudsperson’s activities at Penn State’s various locations, a survey was distributed to all unit ombudspersons in May, 2016. The following report summarizes the activities of Penn State’s Ombudspersons.

Survey Questions and Responses by Ombudspersons:

There was a 50.8% response rate to the survey; 36 out of 66 ombudspersons and alternates responded to the survey. One additional ombudsperson sent a brief reply indicating that he had no cases in the 2015-2016 academic year, for a total response rate of 56.1% (down from 72.7% in the 2014-2015 survey.) Responses came from 15 Commonwealth Campuses, 6 University Park colleges (including University Libraries), Great Valley, Penn State Law, Dickinson Law, and the College of Medicine.

  1. How long have you served as your unit’s Ombudsperson or alternate?

Of the 36 ombudspersons and alternates who answered this question, 11 have served one year or less, 11 have served two to three years, 12 have served four to six years, and the remaining 2 have served ten and twelve years.

  1. How many cases have you been asked to help resolve in the past year?

During the 2015-2016 year, ombudspersons reported handling 33 cases. There were 48 cases reported in 2014-2015. 

  1. For each case, what were the key issue(s)? (e.g., lack of communication, promotion and tenure, harassment, incivility, performance review, etc.)

The issues raised in the 2015-2016 year are ranked by frequency below. Some cases involved more than one issue.

  • Lack of communication (13)
  • Incivility/harassment (8)
  • Promotion & Tenure (5)
  • Performance reviews (4)
  • Procedural fairness (2)
  • Bias/discrimination (2)
  • Policy clarification (1)
  • Teaching assignment (1)
  • Lack of consultation with faculty (1)
  1. What was the position of the person against whom the complaint was lodged? (e.g., staff, faculty, administrator, if other, explain)

In response to this question the following were mentioned: Administrator (15), Faculty (13), and Department head/Supervisor (2). Not all ombudspersons responded to this question.

  1. What steps were taken to resolve the issue?

Ombudspersons assisted parties to resolve their problems by facilitating communication, clarifying policies, providing information, and discussing options. In some cases, the faculty members who raised concerns were able to resolve them on their own with the information provided by their ombudsperson. Some cases were referred to the Affirmative Action Office. Specific steps listed on the surveys included:

  • Discussions with parties in the case
  • Discussions with administrators
  • Listening and making suggestions
  • Information gathering and sharing (e.g., information about policies and procedures)
  • Making referrals
  1. How many of the cases were resolved at the Ombudsperson level?

During 2014-2015, 21 of 33 reported cases (63.6%) were resolved at the ombudsperson level. Remaining cases were either taken to FR&R, referred to Affirmative Action or Human Resources, not pursued, or are still being worked on. Some surveys from the unit Ombudspersons did not report on the resolution of their cases.

  1. How many cases were referred to the Senate Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities or other offices? (e.g. Affirmative Action, Human Resources, etc.)

During 2015-2016, surveys reported 7 cases that were referred to FR&R, Affirmative Action, or Human Resources. 

  1. Were you aware of situations in which a colleague could have consulted an ombuds but went straight to another resource (e.g., Affirmative Action, Human Resources, etc.)? If so, please explain.

This was a new question added this year in an attempt to gather information about whether faculty view their ombudsperson as a resource for problem resolution. Four ombuds reported a total of five known instances in which a faculty member approached their dean, FR&R, or Human Resources before consulting the ombuds.

  1. In your role as a college/campus Ombudsperson, did any issues concerning the Ombudsperson process arise which should be addressed by the University Faculty Senate? If so, explain.

The following are comments received from responding ombudspersons. Comments without quotation marks are condensed and paraphrased from issues raised on the surveys.

  • “Having served in this role for several years and on several occasions, I believe there needs to be a means of dispute/conflict resolution for faculty. The role of the ombuds is limited in this regard. Faculty members of differing rank often feel that the power/status dynamic prevents effective dispute resolution. I know that many large organizations with HR professionals trained in alternative dispute resolution can literally put employees on a “plan/program” mandating change.” Such a program could reduce repeat offenses.
  • “Yes; emphasis on professional courtesy”
  • “FT I promotions”
  • “I can’t say whether the issue should be brought up to the faculty senate, as I’m not sure how often it’s an issue across the University; however, I was unable to find clear guidance on how much control over teaching packages is vested in administration versus individual faculty members.”
  • When there are plans to phase out degree programs, faculty should be given plenty of advance notice.
  • There are salary discrepancies between male and female faculty, and faculty performing similar duties at University Park and other locations.
  • “When Penn State decided to pursue separate accreditation for the UP and Carlisle locations of the Dickinson School of Law, the members of the faculty of the Dickinson School of Law were not provided with the opportunity to choose where they preferred to reside. I understand that the Faculty Senate recommended making joint appointments available, but faculty members interested in joint appointment have been told that they must gain the approval of both law schools’ deans as well as both law schools’ faculties. This appears designed to discourage applications for joint appointment.”
  1. Are there any suggestions you would like to make that could be useful to another ombudsperson, especially a new one? Are there additional meetings (beyond the fall orientation) that you would like to have with other unit ombuds during the academic year?

Seven ombudspersons made suggestions. Following are the responses received in this year’s survey:

  • “Find a way to make more faculty and staff aware that the ombudsperson is an option for conflict resolution.”
  • “Perhaps a brief report that could describe an example of a case, and a complete description of the function.”
  • “I’ll be happy to participate in ombuds meetings should they be desired.”
  • “It would be wonderful to have an annual retreat where we all understand the issues that other campus ombudspeople have faced, and how they were addressed. Otherwise, we all end up with a microscopic view on things.”
  • “I believe the training is sufficient. Time needs to be insured for discussion of specific case studies.”
  • “For a new ombudsperson, it would be helpful to work through a detailed problem that involves a claim of potential discrimination—with issues arising regarding confidentiality and the role of the Senate Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, Affirmative Action, Office of General Counsel, Faculty Senate Ombudsperson, etc. It might be useful to have an additional meeting in the spring.”
  • “I think that much more could be done to publicize the ombudsperson role. I’m not sure that some people at our campus are even aware we exist. We are listed on the campus’s faculty senate roster. I also think it would be nice to have ombudspeople at each campus or unit offer at least one informative session each year (or semester?) to be sure that people are aware of their role.”
  • “I would urge the establishment of a University Ombudsperson whose responsibilities include, but are not limited to, faculty. Also, there is a lack of clarity regarding the relationship between the University Ombudsperson and the University’s administration, given that the University Ombudsperson is appointed by the Faculty Senate. I would urge that this position not be an add-on to existing faculty responsibilities. There are models available at other universities that provide for a reduction in teaching responsibilities in order to permit the University Ombudsperson to be available to respond to issues that may arise. Finally, I would urge that Penn State’s University Ombudsperson meet the requirements of being a full member of the International Ombudsman Association.” University Faculty Ombudsperson’s comments on these suggestions:
    • The Staff Association is interested in making ombudspersons available to faculty. The College of Medicine has two faculty members serving as ombudspersons for graduate and medical students. They had six cases in the 2015-2016 academic year. (These were not included in the 33 faculty cases reported above.)
    • The Penn State ombudsperson model is unusual in that duties are so widely dispersed and are voluntary service activities added on to other assigned responsibilities (e.g., teaching and research).
    • The current University Faculty Ombudsperson is an Associate Member of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA). Under current IOA rules, to qualify as a full member, an ombudsperson must adhere completely to the IOA’s Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics. This is not possible at Penn State given the obligation to report Title IX violations and child abuse. By the time of this Senate Council meeting, the IOA will have voted on a proposal to revise its membership categories; if the proposal is approved, it is likely that academic ombuds will be eligible for full membership. 

Conclusions:

  1. Communication problems still exist. Many of the issues brought to ombudspersons could have been avoided or mitigated by better communication.
  2. Ombudspersons have mixed opinions about whether more training or meetings would be desirable.
  3. A better response rate to the annual survey would enhance the validity of the annual report.
  4. For the most part, the ombudsperson process for faculty at Penn State appears to be working well. 

Recommendations:

  1. Continue to inform faculty and administrators about the existence of the ombudspersons and what they can and cannot do.
  2. Enhance the informational and training materials for unit ombudspersons.
  3. Improve the response rate on the survey.

Ideas to fulfill these recommendations:

  1. Faculty senators should inform their constituents of the identities of their unit ombudspersons and alternates, and review the role of the ombudsperson.
  2. The Senate Officers could discuss the ombudsperson process during their visits to all Penn State locations and their meetings with administrators and faculty.
  3. The Provost’s Office could include an overview of the Ombudsperson process at the orientation for new administrators in charge of faculty and periodically at subsequent meetings.
  4. Unit ombudspersons should introduce themselves at least annually to the faculty they serve, and provide a brief overview of their role. Colleges and campuses could have a web page informing faculty who serves as their Ombudsperson and what an Ombudsperson can and cannot do.
  5. The University Faculty Ombudsperson should provide periodic updates to college and campus ombudspersons and alternates about changes in policies and procedures that might affect their practice.
  6. Add additional case studies with possible courses of action to the materials provided at the ombudsperson orientation. Be sure these are available to ombudspersons who do not attend orientation.
  7. The University Faculty Ombudsperson sent the 2015-2016 survey directly to unit ombudspersons instead of having the Senate Office send it. This did not improve the response rate, despite advance notice that the survey was coming. The 2016-2017 survey should be sent by the Senate Office after notice that it will be coming. 

Submitted by:
Pamela P. Hufnagel
University Faculty Ombudsperson
October 18, 2016