2016-2017 University Faculty Ombudsperson Report
Penn State Policy AC 76, Faculty Rights and Responsibilities (formerly HR 76) states:
Colleges and campuses should have a person or group to serve in the role of ombudsperson. The objective is to enhance communication and clarify possible misunderstandings in situations which involve potential disputes, to advise faculty members and administrators as to appropriate courses of action, and to help settle matters before they become hardened into serious disputes. The individual or group should be selected by procedures approved by a majority of the faculty in the unit. View procedures. (https://policy.psu.edu/policies/ac76).
Penn State’s college and campus faculty ombudspersons serve voluntarily and abide by the principles of informality, impartiality, independence, and confidentiality. Informality means that communications to ombudspersons do not constitute notice to the university. If a colleague initiates a formal process (e.g., files a petition with Faculty Rights and Responsibilities), the role of the ombudsperson is over. Impartiality means that ombudspersons do not take sides in any dispute, although they may advocate for fair processes. They can discuss options but cannot impose solutions. To maintain independence, ombudspersons refer cases to alternate ombudspersons when there might be a conflict of interest. To maintain confidentiality, ombudspersons do not discuss any colleague’s concern, or even disclose that a colleague contacted them, without the permission of that colleague. (Note, however, that confidentiality does not apply if an ombudsperson is informed of sexual misconduct or abuse or of threats of imminent harm.)
In May 2017, college and campus ombudspersons and alternates were asked to report on their activities during the 2016-2017 academic year. Fifty-six of 66 (84.8%) ombudspersons and alternates returned reports. This response rate was substantially better than the 2016 response rate (50.8%). Responses came from 19 Commonwealth Campuses, 11 University Park colleges (including University Libraries), Great Valley, Penn State Law, Dickinson Law, and the College of Medicine.
College and campus ombudspersons reported handling 88 cases during the 2016-2017 academic year. This is an increase over the number of cases reported in the 2015-2016 and 2014-2015 years (33 and 48, respectively). This increase is due to the overall higher response rate by unit ombudspersons and higher than usual numbers of cases occurring in some units.
Many cases involved more than one issue. The most common concerns involved incivility and interpersonal conflict (including harassment, bullying, making threats, and spreading rumors), lack of communication, problems with unit climate or leadership (including disrespect, performance reviews, workload, and procedural fairness), or promotion and tenure problems. Less common issues involved discrimination, dismissal, or compensation, among others. Most concerns or complaints involved administrators or division/department heads, followed by complaints about other faculty.
To help colleagues deal with their problems, ombudspersons listened and provided options, gathered and shared information on policies and procedures, held discussions with parties in the case (sometimes mediating or facilitating discussions between the parties involved), and made referrals.
Nineteen ombudspersons reported on the resolution of cases. Unit ombudspersons reported referring 16 cases to FR&R, Affirmative Action, or Human Resources. While responses indicated that only 54.5% of cases were “resolved at the ombudsperson level,” this figure does not include cases in which information provided by ombudspersons enabled their colleagues to resolve their problems without further consultation. An unspecified number of cases were ongoing at the time reports were filed.
On behalf of the faculty and administration, the University Faculty Ombudsperson would like to thank unit ombudspersons for their contributions to improved communications and problem resolution in their units. Prior to their retirements, Blannie Bowen, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, and Ken Lehrman, Vice Provost for Affirmative Action, both provided valuable insights into ways to approach certain problems and they deserve our gratitude.
Senators can assist their unit ombudspersons “to help settle matters before they become hardened into serious disputes” by reminding their constituents and administrators that ombudspersons are available for informal consultation. View a list of unit ombudspersons and alternates (http://senate.psu.edu/faculty/university-faculty-ombudsperson/unit-ombudspersons-2017-2018/) . Links to helpful resources are available on the Senate website (http://senate.psu.edu/faculty/university-faculty-ombudsperson/), and materials specifically for unit ombudspersons are available on Box.
Pamela P. Hufnagel
University Faculty Ombudsperson
- Mohamad Ansari
- Michael Bérubé
- Victor Brunsden
- Caroline (Carey) Eckhardt
- Galen Grimes
- Rosemary Jolly
- Lisa Kitko
- John Nousek
- Judith Ozment
- Julia Plummer
- Lisa Posey
- Nicholas Rowland
- Robert Shannon
- Richard Shurgalla
- Erica Smithwick
- James Strauss
- Martha Strickland
- Bonj Szczygiel
- Ann Taylor
- Rodney Troester
- William Wenner
- Matthew Woessner
- Douglas Wolfe