2017-2018 University Faculty Ombudsperson Report
The Position of University Faculty Ombudsperson was established by the Senate Committee on Committees and Rules on March 31, 1998. The duties of the University Faculty Ombudsperson are defined in the University Faculty Senate’s Standing Rules, Article III, Section 10.
“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.”
The Selection and Responsibilities of the Academic Units Ombudspersons (referred herein as ombudspersons) are defined by the Policy AC76:
A. An Ombudsperson shall be appointed in each of the colleges, campuses and academic units.
For those not associated with an academic unit, or in cases where the appropriate ombudsperson may be in doubt, the following policy shall be applied:
- Where appropriate, the ombudsperson will be from the same academic unit to which the employee is most closely associated. For example, research associates in the Applied Research Laboratory will have access to the ombudsperson for the College of Engineering.
- In cases where there is disagreement or doubt as to the appropriate ombudsperson, the Executive Vice President and Provost shall make the determination.
- In cases where the ombudsperson is in doubt as to his or her jurisdiction, he or she shall ask the Executive Vice President and Provost for a determination.
B. The Dean, Chancellor, or other appropriate campus official and the faculty shall jointly develop selection procedures for the ombudsperson. Normally, the role of ombudsperson will be performed by a single person, with a designated alternate. In unusual circumstances, a group of not more than three persons may be selected. No one who is a member of the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities shall serve as ombudsperson.
C. Functions for the ombudsperson are:
- Clarification of misunderstandings;
- Advising faculty and administrators as to appropriate courses of action;
- Assisting in the informal resolution of differences;
- Assuring that appropriate department, college and/or campus procedures are exhausted before referring the case to higher levels;
- Informing the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost and appropriate college or campus officials if a matter cannot be resolved at the lower level and the case is to be referred to the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities.
- The ombudsperson shall not:
- Hold hearings;
- Exceed the role of conciliator and advisor;
- Substitute his or her judgment for that of appropriate administrative and/or faculty bodies;
- Serve as counsel for either party to a complaint before the Hearing Board.
Ombudspersons provide valuable services to the faculty and they are trusted resources for the faculty. Ombudspersons are committed to listening to the faculty; answering questions; explaining policies and procedures; providing information and advice; exploring possible solutions; suggesting appropriate referrals; assisting in pursuing a resolution; and informally mediating a dispute where appropriate.
To further enhance communications among the ombudsperson, in addition to the Ombudsperson Orientation meeting that was held in August, 2018, Vice Provost Kathy Bieschke, Senate Executive Director Dawn Blasko, and the University Faculty Ombudsperson Mohamad A. Ansari held a regional meeting with the ombudspersons from colleges at University Park in October 2018, and another meeting was held, in March 2019, with the Ombudspersons from the Commonwealth Campuses. The Senate Office received positive feedback on these regional meetings.
This informational report is drafted by the University Faculty Ombudsperson and is submitted to the Senate Council on behalf of all academic Units’ Ombudspersons from across the university. The purpose of this report is to summarize the activities and the services that were provided to the faculty by the ombudspersons during 2017-18 academic year. In order to assess the ombudspersons’ activities, on May 1, 2018, the Senate Office distributed “A 10 Question Survey” to all ombudspersons and alternate ombudspersons from 23 Commonwealth Campuses, 12 University Park colleges (including University Libraries), Great Valley, Penn State Law, Dickinson Law, and the College of Medicine.
Survey Questions and Responses
The Senate Office received 61 reports from the ombudspersons and alternate ombudsperson, a 93.85% response rate to the survey. This response rate is slightly higher than the 2017 response rate (84.8%).
1. How long have you served as your unit’s Ombudsperson or alternate?
Of the ombudspersons who answered this question, 20 have served one year, 18 have served two to three years, 13 have served four to eight years, 1 has served ten years, and 1 had served 15 years.
2. How many cases have you been asked to help resolve in the past year?
During the 2017-2018 academic year, ombudspersons reported 90 cases. This is an increase of 2.2% over the 88 cases that were reported during 2016-2017 academic year.
3. For each case, what were the key issue(s)? (e.g., lack of communication, promotion and tenure, harassment, incivility, performance review, etc.)
The following issues that were reported by the ombudspersons are ranked by their frequency (24 to 1):
- Lack of communication/Miscommunication/Poor Communication;
- Promotion & Tenure (P&T);
- Procedural fairness unrelated to P&T;
- Performance reviews;
- Interpersonal conflict;
- Bullying/Threats/Spreading false rumors;
- Information/policy clarification.
4. What was the position of the person against whom the complaint was lodged? (e.g., staff, faculty, administrator, if other, explain)
During 2017-18 academic year, ombudspersons received complaints against Senior Leadership of the University, Administrator, Chancellor, Associate Dean or DAA, faculty colleague, Dean, Department or Division Head, School Director, staff, and Human Resources.
5. What steps were taken to resolve the issue?
During 2017-18 academic year, ombudspersons assisted faculty to resolve their problems by facilitating communication, clarifying policies, providing information, and discussing options. The following responses to this question are quoted from the survey:
- “Discussed with complainant options and made suggestions for resolution. No additional consult necessary; tied to clarify the issue and discuss the options; recommended 3 paths for resolution; individual met with administrators and faculty several times and eventually left the university.”
- “One-on-one conflict coaching or consultation; mediation; representation in meeting(s) with senior administration and sometimes HR; and referral to other offices at PSU.”
- “Researched HR policies, contacted university privacy office and put faculty member in touch with appropriate person to investigate whether any violation had occurred.”
- “A meeting with the Chancellor, DAA, faculty member, HR representative, and ombudsman was held. As a result of the meeting, situation was resolved and faculty member was reappointed to a FT-1 position.”
- “Private conversation between ombuds and DAA; listened to faculty member; took notes; sent memo to faculty member documenting the conversation (this was all that was requested); and attended meeting between faculty member, chancellor, and UC senior associate dean for faculty and research to document and help process information conveyed (this was all that was requested).”
- “Met with the faculty member several times and provided counsel on how to move forward. Also suggested he contact the University Ombudsperson for a different perspective.”
- “Generally, the actions involved many one-on-one conversations with the individuals, as well as follow-up consultations regarding recommended actions, including potential filings with affirmative action office.”
- “In two related cases, I conducted a “fact-finding” at the request of the Dean, and I turned in a written report. This report led to a series of steps to address the issues at the college and departmental levels. Related to these cases, I was asked to have conversations with faculty who had been accused of unprofessional behavior. One of the aggrieved individuals has filed with the AA office as well, and I was consulted on this filing.”
- “Consulted with the faculty, who was allegedly involved in bullying behavior, supervisors/department head, and in four cases, the Dean and HR leadership in the college.”
- “I just explained the conflict resolution process and the Ombudsperson’s role in that process.”
- “I discussed the matter with the individual in person, phone and/or e-mail. In two of the eight cases the Alternate Ombudsperson was part of the communication. Some cases involved participating in meetings with the Associate Dean. One case also included participation from HR. Most of the steps involved additional communication to understand the issue and discuss any relevant policies.”
6. How many of the cases were resolved at the Ombudsperson level?
During 2017-18 academic year, ombudspersons who had been contacted by the faculty were able to resolve 39 cases out of 90 cases (43.33%). This rate is lower than the rate that was reported in 2016-2017 academic year (54.5%). For example, one ombudsperson was able to resolve 7 cases of the 10 cases that he/she had received, another resolved 4 cases out of 5, and another resolved 2 cases out of 8.
7. 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 2017-2018 academic year, 14 cases were referred to the Senate Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities (FR&R). One case was reported to the Office of Affirmative Action, and four cases were reported to the Office of Human Resources. The following responses to this question are quoted from the survey:
- “I referred one person to this committee (FR&R) as an option, but after further discussion, the person decided not to pursue; One person self referred to this committee – and is currently considering if this is an option to pursue. I consulted with HR on two of the 5 cases, one with a person present.”
- “1 to FR&R.”
- “In case 2, the faculty member independently approached HR.”
- “One, but the person decided not to pursue it.”
8. 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.
The following responses to this question are quoted from the survey:
- “Faculty sometimes go to HR naively thinking that HR is a neutral office when in fact they primarily represent the interests of the University and senior administrators.”
- “I was not aware of any such situation.”
- “Yes. Among newer/junior faculty, there seems to be a lack of awareness of the potential roles and even the presence of a unit faculty ombudsperson. Among those aware that there is an ombudsperson, their identity was generally unknown, and there was an overall perception that consulting the ombudsperson is the first step in a formal complaint process rather than a potential alternate route to resolution. I will be addressing this in the coming months. I will send out an introductory e-mail early in the fall semester. I also hope to provide a little more than name and contact information on our college’s HR page.”
9. 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 responses to this question are quoted from the survey:
- “Yes. In Case 1 the faculty member believed the department head was misusing SRTE scores.”
- “When an issue arises with faculty not adhering to AD20 on a small campus in a small unit, there is no way to make an anonymous complaint. If the DAA refuses to address the issue, what alternatives exist for faculty to remain anonymous but still ensure the integrity of a program?”
- “I have grown increasingly concerned about faculty being mandated to show up at a private meeting with HR or a division head or a more senior administrator without being told the general topic of the meeting. This is sometimes understandable if the faculty member is the target of a serious investigation but, even then, it may violate due process. I have seen this happen more as a routine power move over the last few years. My sense is that it grows out of the post-Sandusky cultural update but it is not fully justified by us needing to be hyper-vigilant of all types of wrongdoing.”
- “The rights and responsibilities of faculty with partial appointments in departments are unspecified by current HR documents, which leave these individuals potentially vulnerable to marginalization by the departmental decision-making process. There need to be clear guidelines for rights and responsibilities of faculty appointments that are split between two or more academic units.”
- “Clarify timelines for tenure packages with regard to teaching and service: why is there a 5-year limit to these materials? What are the rights of minority appointments in a department? There should be a requirement that roles, rights, and responsibilities should be clarified at the time of appointment “at will” service in administrative roles should be clarified in all cases at the time of appointment, and reporting lines need to be clearly delineated at the time of appointment.”
- “The main issue: Clarification on faculty rights for an ombudsperson to be present at a meeting. For example, if a faculty member’s immediate supervisor does not consent to the presence of an ombudsperson, what rights does the faculty member have at that point?”
- “Very uneven rules on compensation for overloads, program coordinators, etc. across the campuses. Very very very different levels of compensation. Really unfair situation!”
10. 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?
The following responses to this question are quoted from the survey:
- “Make sure you go to the orientation as the beginning of your term and about every other year to stay current with policies and tools available.”
- “Please schedule the orientation far in advance. It makes it easier for us to block out the time at a difficult time of year. Please send the final report to all ombuds. Please have the University ombuds share a statement at least once per year and consider doing so with a posted video.”
- “Prepare for a lot of listening, understand diverse points of view, and offer alternatives that lead to conflict resolution with a minimum of bureaucratic kerfuffle and personal animosity.”
- “An online meeting with other unit Ombuds to discuss issues will be helpful.”
- “There is a great need to educate faculty and administrators in what characterizes harassment, sexual harassment, incivility, chilly climate, and bullying behaviors, differences between an isolated occurrence and a repeated pattern of behaviors, and how to document one’s experiences. Penn State is lagging far behind peer institutions in efforts to educate its employees, including and perhaps especially faculty, in these issues. This exacerbates the wide generational difference in how younger and older employees interpret their experiences and perceive what is acceptable behavior.”
- “Having some information about the types of issues handled by others would be of value.”
- “Suggestions: 1) Increased communication between ombudspersons across the University. A meeting once per semester, in-person, can be useful. 2) Support training and certification from external organizations (e.g. International Ombudsman Association).”
- “I would have liked to consult with other ombudspersons at times just to get help processing and testing my own perspectives. Maybe sharing the names/emails of other ombudspersons would facilitate this if this would be an acceptable way to consult.”
- “The role of an “alternate” is questionable. While alternate, I was not involved in a single case.”
- “The orientation does a good job of reinforcing how important simply listening and understanding is when talking with someone about their concerns. I try not to rush in with suggestions or ways to fix things until the person has had plenty of time to talk. I think a mid-year check in meeting would be a good idea to find out if there are questions or issues that have developed. I also think knowing who counterparts are at other campuses would be beneficial.”
Mohamad A. Ansari,
University Faculty Ombudsperson
- Mohamad Ansari
- Jonna Belanger
- Michael Bérubé
- Carey Eckhardt
- Janet Hughes
- Nicholas Jones
- Brian King
- John Nousek
- Judy Ozment
- Rosemarie Petrilla
- Julia Plummer
- Lisa Posey
- Nicholas Rowland
- Beth Seymour
- Robert Shannon
- Alok Sinha
- Bonj Szyzgiel
- Ann Taylor
- Paul Thompson
- James Warren
- William Wenner
- Matthew Woessner