Challenges and Successes: Starting an Ombuds Office in Troubled Waters
Dusty Bates Farned
Faulkner University, Jones School of Law
Acknowledgments: Special thanks to CCCUO and IOA members who graciously peer reviewed and edited this article.
An ombuds at the University of Pennsylvania, and editor of the International Ombudsman Association’s Independent Voice, was the first to suggest I write a narrative about starting a new Ombuds service. At the time, having only been in the role for a couple months, my experience was probably not very remarkable and yet now it is perhaps too lengthy for a newsletter. There are ample takeaways from my experience, dos and don’ts, and no doubt professional listeners and problem solvers will absorb these.
After graduating law school, I was offered a position in California with the Consumer Protection Division of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office. However, I desired a neutral, non- advocacy role, although very often neutrals are former advocates. So I accepted a mediator position in Dallas where I had spent time growing up and still had some family and friends. It was a wonderful experience, although as a contract employee it lacked regular hours and benefits.
The desire to start an Ombuds Office at a flagship state university preceded my arrival by at least a decade. An executive committee on women’s issues recommended that the President’s Office establish an organizational ombuds. It is unclear what led the Women’s Committee to make this recommendation. While this was the administration’s first acknowledgement of a proposal to establish an Ombuds Office, it was indefinitely tabled. In the following years, widespread conflict ensued regarding the school mascot and motto, which involved lawmakers and lawyers. To many, this polemical situation stemmed from broader underlying problems, and tensions continued to surface even after the matter was reportedly resolved. On the positive side, the university’s direction and identity were also changing from a regional establishment to a more national, research-based institution. However, as change often does, this too created conflict.
In a short amount of time, quite a few senior and junior administrators resigned, retired, transferred, or were terminated for various reasons. A few others later shared that they were considering getting out, which some eventually did. An unofficial website was created so people affiliated with the university could anonymously, yet publically, air their grievances. It was in this period of turmoil and transition that the idea for an organizational ombuds arose again, first in the Faculty Senate and subsequently in the Staff Senate and Student Senate, which all passed resolutions supporting its creation. The President’s Office finally agreed, but only as a half-time, one year, pilot project. The program was relatively triumphant but not without a lot of hard work and series of administrative challenges.
A New Ombuds Search
The Ombuds Committee, as it came to be known, was tasked with searching for the new hire. It was comprised of leaders from each of the senates plus the university general counsel, whose role had recently and oddly been changed to report to the system chancellor rather than the university president. Many months later, I was informed by the president that the general counsel did not support the creation of the ombuds position, but was nevertheless picked to represent the administration on the committee.
Following a national search, three finalists were named and invited to campus to offer their vision for the new office. The other two were a former vice dean at the university’s law school and the founding director of the conflict resolution center on campus. As a fairly new law school graduate, with only a couple years’ experience, I did not expect to be offered the position. Still, I presented myself as someone who would devoutly follow IOA standards of practice and ethics in starting a new ombuds service. As a university ombuds, I tried to stay true to this promise.
Because the majority of the Ombuds Committee had agreed that they too wanted a program based on IOA principles, my first request was to ask the President’s Office for the search committee to remain in an advisory and support capacity during the trial year. When I first met the president, I recall an overpowering handshake. The president then explained that we were raised in the same Christian denomination, but he had converted after marriage. Undoubtedly, he had deduced this connection from my curriculum vitae and the schools I had attended. After the meeting, I sent him a copy of a recent memoir by another university president who shared our connection. Although pleased with the link and hopeful it was a good first impression, I did not expect it to be the predominant subject during our first meeting, nor a model for ones to come. Our initial encounter gave me enough concern that I made three outside contacts before officially accepting.
First, I sought advice from someone who had graduated from the same dispute resolution program I had attended and who was a past IOA president. I asked for any advice on starting a new program and expressed concern about a potential issue with office of notice. While the majority of the committee members were vocal in their preference for an office in compliance with IOA principles, I recalled that the general counsel had been silent. I also recall this experienced ombudsman’s parting warning: “Remember, be friendly with everyone but friends with none.”
The other two contacts were former insiders. One had been president of the Student Senate there, supported the creation of the Ombuds Office, and had since been elected as the youngest female state representative in the United States. She was instrumental in providing me a who’s who and what’s what at the organization. It was perhaps this contact that also resulted in a letter of support as university ombuds from a U.S. Senator who also maintained deep university ties.
The last person to whom I reached out for advice prior to accepting the position was an old family friend who had been chancellor of that state’s university system. The friend had also created an ombuds role when previously serving as university president in my hometown. They warned of an unusual amount of institutional politics there, which meant a lot considering their comparative experience. However, they also advised that money should not be an issue in starting a new program, as budgets were surprisingly overflowing because of unique and fortunate circumstances.
First Half of Pilot Project
The Ombuds Office did not come with any funds. This meant often stopping by the President’s Office, especially at the beginning, to request the most basic items such as office supplies and equipment (like the president’s old computer which eventually crashed and had to be rebuilt and business cards which were only issued as temporary printouts and had to be continuously refilled because so many were getting handed out). Likewise, site selection had been given to the general counsel, who chose a small space in the basement, previously allotted to them. Ombuds mail was also routed to their mailroom, to which I was not provided a key, until I had an independent box setup in the main university post office. Such obstacles were present from the start, yet I decided it was best for the program to work as much as possible within these confines during the trial period.
The first semester operated quite well and must have been mostly enjoyable because it seemed to pass quickly. I met with the president and Ombuds Committee separately every other month to provide periodic updates and receive feedback. I met with virtually every administrator on campus, a sizable feat given the multitude of colleges, departments, offices, and programs (academic and non-academic) of most universities. I also took opportunities to tell groups about the new service, such as meeting with each of the Senates, over a hundred facilities and maintenance employees, guest lecturing for a couple law school classes (where I included brief segments on an ombuds role), and even agreeing to interview with the local newspaper to help explain that novel thing called ombuds. A subsequent news story, soon after I departed, was not authorized by me, but the administration. By the end of the first semester, the new Ombuds Office had already had the opportunity to work with nearly fifty visitors. These cases involved a range of issues—on par with many more established programs. In fact, as a sign of success during the first six months, I was invited as guest of honor to the Staff Senate luncheon just before the holidays.
At first, I did not realize this was something special, as I figured everybody received an invitation to the annual event. However, according to a member of the Ombuds Committee (also on Staff Senate and working in the President’s Office), I was the first non-member ever invited, except the president in their ex offico capacity. Prior to its start, the president arrived and came straight towards me and someone who had stopped to say hello to me. “So, you go to the ombudsman to complain a lot?” the president asked. I will never forget the expression of that person, and I imagine mine looked just as stunned. Presumably joking and unbeknownst to the president, that employee had been to visit the Ombuds Office, on a couple occasions, and never came back after that. To make matters worse, around the same time, two other administrative storms also started brewing.
As one of the first outreach efforts, I had sought out the director of the Conflict Resolution Center on campus (runner-up for the ombuds position). Now, they sent an email hotly accusing and criticizing the Ombuds Office for accepting and resolving cases they had normally received and blaming this for their drastic budget cut. In truth, I wholeheartedly supported their service and by the end of the first semester had already made nearly half a dozen referrals to them. The second administrative conflict was at least wrapped in a prettier package.
Summoned to meet with the provost and their own counsel, I was asked if I would like to work with them on legal and policy research, since the ombuds job was only half-time. Although my first reaction was to be flattered and enticed with doubling my income, I replied that half-time ombuds (or even full-time for that matter) is a misnomer, especially when starting a new office. Also in my mind, this dual role would have violated IOA principles, and even if capable of separating duties, perception is just as important as reality for a neutral. Still, I asked for time to get back with a final answer because I did not want to outright reject the offer and offend the provost (second-in-command to the president) or their counsel (married to another vice president).
I scheduled a meeting with the president to provide a six month update on the pilot project. The sole topic of discussion, however, became the suggestion of the provost. The president insisted I accept what he viewed as a generous offer. Despite the obdurate insistence, I said no thank you.
Meetings with the president were always scheduled for an hour but never even came close to it, sometimes lasting as little as ten minutes. Once when I was shown in, I made the mistake of complimenting a painting in the president’s office of a recognizable mountain scene from New Mexico. I then got to hear all about growing up with his mother who was an oil landscape artist. Pleasant story but I did not even get the chance to say my mom, who passed when I was in college, was also a talented painter. In another meeting where I hoped to provide an update on the new Ombuds Office, I learned all about a hiking trip the president had taken. He encountered a grizzly but accidentally sprayed himself in the face with bear spray. He went on to explain his flight got delayed—a chartered flight, he made clear. At no time did I get to share that my dad also had a great bear experience, proudly hung above his fireplace mantle. Some stories I got to hear more than once. But when the president was finished, he would always stand up, shake your hand, literally turn his back and walk away. By the time of the six month update, I had already begun bringing and leaving typed, anonymous, aggregated, update reports. I once left material on IOA principles, in hope that the president might at least read it at some point, even if he had no interest in discussing it.
Brief Reflective Period
Holidays are always too short, especially in the U.S. where employees are often afforded less time off than some. Yet, this holiday season was particularly a God-send, not only because a break was needed but because it provided the first real time to reflect on the new program. My sense was that it had been successful so far, including in the view of mid-level administration (most deans and even some vice presidents). Human Resources greatly embraced the new service, so much so that I was worried about having our roles confused. Moreover, I became concerned that if I continued to commit full-time hours for the part-time position, then at the end of the trial period there would be less justification to expand it, something that was clearly needed. I decided not to cut back on actual practice, mostly done by appointment, but to withdraw from outreach where possible.
Different Sort of Ombuds Search
Refreshed and ready to begin the second half of the ombuds pilot project, I received an email from the President’s Office stating that it was time for a six month evaluation (standard for new employees). It was actually past time. What puzzled me most, however, was a date provided for the following month to meet with the Ombuds Committee that would be conducting the evaluation. It had been stated in interviews that evaluations were to be conducted personally by the president, as he did for all direct reports. I did not respond, which was undoubtedly the wrong move.
In a couple days, two campus officers and the Chief of Police walked into the Ombuds Office. Already knowing the chief, I wondered what kind of case this was to start the new semester. I was informed that the President wanted to see me immediately. Why had he not summoned me himself? The president never once called, nor emailed, and only once visited the new Ombuds Office, at my insistence, which was the last time I ever saw him. The thought crossed my mind that a mayor who used police to retrieve city employees might be kicked out of office for misuse of public resources. Nevertheless, I obliged and scheduled a meeting.
The president was extremely cordial when we met as if he had not had police called on me. When I mentioned it, he said he was concerned for my well-being since I had not visited the president’s office in the last couple weeks (if truly the reason then he should have followed standard employee emergency contact procedures) and I had not replied to an email that his secretary sent (notifying me without expressly seeking a response). Without pausing, the president said I was being “caviler.” Did he mean the first weeks of the new semester, or the confidential, informal, independent, and neutral position for which I was hired? The president then repeated the evaluation procedure change.
This modification would make me the only staff member at the university to be evaluated by a committee rather than an individual (standard for faculty but not staff). In fact, even the performance evaluations of university presidents in this system were conducted by an individual, the chancellor. I wondered, if evaluated by others, would position reporting still comply with IOA principles? Not wishing to cause further obstacles for the new program, I stated I could more easily accept the modification if I was permitted to change the Ombuds Committee, namely removing the General Counsel who had unofficially taken over as committee lead. The president agreed and an ad hoc advisory committee for the ombuds would now become an official advisory committee for the President. Curiously, the president left the responsibility to the provost for informing the general counsel of their removal from the Ombuds Committee.
While attempting to make lemonade from lemons, the new Ombuds Committee was just as unhappy and unfamiliar with their new roles as I was. They thought of a campus-wide survey to help evaluate performance and I welcomed the idea. It took many hours and meetings to design, distribute, collect, and evaluate the data but in the end, approximately four hundred people within the university community completed the survey. Overall sentiment was astounding support for the new Ombuds Office.
The administration was not satisfied with the survey results and demanded that the committee conduct a traditional personnel evaluation, as difficult as that is for a position like ombuds. Again, many hours and meetings lay ahead. In fact, in merely two months, the Ombuds Committee scheduled an astounding thirteen meetings. As the final evaluation meeting finally approached, I was emailed the results and generally agreed with the committee’s positive evaluation of my performance. All I had to do now was sign it (four months past the six month deadline HR had given the president).
Unfortunately, I overbooked myself that day. I was scheduled to work on another case that morning and have an early lunch with a dean to discuss yet another couple of cases. I failed to inform the Ombuds Committee until a call from the new committee chair, but I apologized and stated we would have to reschedule.
When the president heard the meeting did not take place that day, the police were dispatched to “find me.” I did not realize it until arriving home later that evening, when a neighbor told me that three cops had visited my apartment. It was shocking to say the least. Not only was I being hunted down again, but now it felt even more personal.
My high tolerance for conflict reached a breaking point. I was not exactly upset with the Ombuds Committee member who informed the president of the rescheduled meeting, as I understood they had a dual role as paid assistant to the president and volunteer assistant to the ombuds. Still, I emailed them saying that, if cops were at my apartment because of the morning meeting, then I felt as if I was being harassed and did not know why. The reply was yes, university police were called when the meeting was missed, but before the President’s Office had learned of rescheduling with the new committee chair. Moreover, they warned that our communication was not confidential.
A few days later at the Ombuds Office when I was preparing to leave for an IOA conference, the President’s Office emailed stating they had something for me. Was it a thank you card for helping manage lots of conflicts within the university? I went by before driving to the airport and picked up the bulky envelope.
The first document I pulled out was a copy of a cell phone bill. I had requested a mobile phone early on as I thought it might be helpful in light of the half-time status of the project. I was informed I could either use a university cell phone or use my own and be reimbursed for usage. The latter would have required me to submit a monthly call log. As it turned out, however, both options compromised confidentiality. Highlighted on the invoice were multiple calls to a number from a different area code with a note attached saying the phone was for work purposes only.
In fact, that number belonged to an employee who had recently been placed on involuntary administrative leave. They had contacted the Ombuds Office to discuss options but were afraid to meet in person. Despite not being accused of anything unethical or violent (performance justification), they said they had been escorted to their vehicle by university police and provided a letter from the general counsel warning them to stay off campus pending further notice. This had not taken into account the fact that their young children also attended primary school on university property, a problem to which the Ombuds Office was eventually able to help facilitate a solution. Yet, concerning at that moment was realization that calls to and from the ombuds was being monitored.
The smaller document in the envelope was no less worrisome. It was an official letter of reprimand, first and only, stating that the ombuds did not maintain regular office hours, therefore justifying the use of university police to find the ombuds. In fact, strictly-kept general hours posted outside the Ombuds Office were spread throughout the week to be most accessible to visitors and in total accounted for half the hours in the workweek (which seemed like a lot, especially considering the significant additional time needed for private consultations and public outreach when possible). More than a reprimand, the letter from the president read like a response to an informal complaint (one not even sent or intended for him to see) about what felt like harassment and surveillance (after the second such occurrence).
Brief Reflective Interlude
As with the holidays, the IOA conference in Denver provided a second timely reflection. I considered a written response, a policy option routinely conveyed to others. Yet, could I adequately reply without breaching confidentiality? Would it only escalate the conflict and potentially spoil the new ombuds program? I equally considered resignation. Could quality ombuds service continue to be provided given my plummeting morale? Not to mention, I was no longer sure of the confidentiality I tried to ensure visitors to the new Ombuds Office. I did not share these troubles with others at the ombuds conference. Perhaps there were too many professional listeners and problem solvers to choose from. Still, merely being in their presence renewed my resolve.
Second Half of Pilot Project
Upon returning from the conference, I signed the reprimand letter and underlined the terms “signature is acknowledgment only.” Without providing details, I informed the President’s Office that the out-of-area calls were work related, but I began to use my own personal phone instead of the one the university had provided. I also took the opportunity to apply for two other open ombuds positions.
As far as I am aware, university police were never called on the Ombuds again, although an eerily similar situation involving the use of university police on another administrator by the President resembled my own so closely that I refused to allow the Ombuds Office to get involved (my first and only recusal). Overall, the second semester ended like the first began—I was able to mostly put aside the conflict of starting an Ombuds Office in troubled waters and focus on the day-to-day disputes for employees and students. I also consulted with the university’s in-state rival about the creation of their new Ombuds Office and again had the opportunity to guest lecture for a couple more law school classes. Most importantly, after a difficult few months for all involved, the Ombuds Committee was able to get back on good footing. In fact, the committee voted unanimously to recommend continuation of my position to the president.
If you believe herein that actual ombuds work receives too little attention, then you know exactly how I felt throughout much of the pilot project. In spite of it, the promotion and practice of the new Ombuds Office was successful. By the end of the trial year there had been a total of one hundred and eleven faculty, staff, and student visitors, plus forty-three administrators who had used the new office. Some utilized it more than once, particularly mid-level administrators who routinely encountered issues above and below them. Besides types and trends in issues, during the first year I also tracked and shared the amount of cases that required multiple meetings, services provided by the Ombuds Office including referrals to and from other offices, and outcomes where known. While many outcomes are never known and ombuds do not deserve entire credit for those that are, good or bad, over fifty-five percent of cases were resolved after one or multiple consultations with the Ombuds Office in its first year. Successful resolutions included both simple and complex disputes. Indeed, the best compliment received came from a seasoned faculty leader who said it had been the “quietest” year they could ever remember.
If only I had felt the same. By the time the deadline for the one year pilot came, I was extremely careworn and ready to go to work for someone else. In fact, I had been named a finalist in both of the other ombuds positions to which I had applied—one at a long established program and another starting a new office. At the latter, I was told their president and general counsel were the two biggest proponents of a new ombuds position, not its two biggest opponents. What a difference that must make.
However, my work at the university was unfinished. The administration had not made a final decision regarding the future of the program by the completion of the pilot project as promised. The president’s assistant informed me that the president had authorized a temporary extension of the program on his way to a month long vacation during which the provost would take charge and at which time the President would like me to meet with the provost to discuss concern about the Ombuds Office providing notice to the organization. If I left then to take another position as I was planning, there was little doubt the opportunity would be seized to simply not renew the ombuds service. I was unwilling to take that chance for the many more people, confirmed by the survey results, who wanted it to remain as a place of advice and support.
As interim president, I met with the provost for the first time since I had turned down the offer to work for them. They asked whether the Ombuds Office provided notice to the university in “sensitive cases.” I stated it had not been the practice per IOA principles, shared a researched opinion of frequently cited case law regarding the matter, and informed them that I had suggested a charter for the Ombuds Office, which would make it clear the Ombuds Office was not a “Campus Security Authority.” The provost replied that they had already thought of many more types of cases warranting notice, besides the limited ones I discussed, and asked if I was willing to not only change my practice but also sign something saying I was obligated to notify the university in these instances. Shocked but with some wits still intact, I politely informed the provost there was no way I would knowingly assume the organization’s liability. This was a far cry from interviewing when I was assured should anything go awry, the ombuds would have access to not only university counsel but also paid independent counsel.
Strangely, this was the first time I fully realized that this administration did not understand, much less support an ombuds role, and if they were going to allow it they were downright determined to control it, even if it required an occasional show of force or displacement of liability. Those smarter than me would have grasped this sooner. I drafted a letter to upper administration outlining the lack of support and shared it with the Ombuds Committee for their feedback. They were split on whether or not to submit it and again I decided it was probably best to hold off, since the decision on the future of the program had still not been made. Regardless of how the administration felt, it was difficult to deny that the pilot project had served its purpose. Upon its one year anniversary, cases continued to stream in (quite a few were starting to show up as referrals from past visitors).
Upon the president’s return from his four week vacation, I submitted the first annual report for the Ombuds Office. It had already received positive review from the committee. At a dozen pages, it was longer than most. Still, administrative conflicts were not directly addressed and instead focus was maintained on the many outreach efforts and cases of the first year.
The first meeting to discuss the annual report with the president was canceled without notice. I thought, if only an ombuds had the power to use university police to bring someone in for questioning. When we finally met on the final day of the extended contract, the president said a decision had at last been made to continue the program on a permanent basis, made full rather than half-time, that he had received nothing but positive feedback regarding my job performance (which sounded odd coming from him), and that my contract could be extended again, but to expect changes in the position description regarding office of notice. The position description upon hiring did not mention IOA principles, and despite attempts to get it included or have it referenced by charter after being hired, it never was. Without hesitation, I said “thank you for extending the program and making the ombuds role full-time,” and then rejected the contract extension and position changes. At half an hour, this was the most the president had ever met with me. When we shook hands for the final time, I noticed his grip was less over-the-top than ever before.
Final Reflective Period
It was difficult to leave behind new friends in the area, although I believe everybody could see my bags were already packed. After spending Labor Day weekend settling final affairs, I took a short vacation I had planned for over a year but had not had a chance to take. I thought then, “now is the time to write that essay about starting a new ombuds office.” I had kept mostly quiet for months, trying to maintain a positive disposition for the new program. Like those who visit with an ombuds, I now feel considerably better simply having been afforded the opportunity to speak. Hopefully, others may also benefit from the sharing of my experience as it was a year of many firsts, many successes, and many challenges.
In postscript, I was immediately offered a position at one of my alma maters starting a new conflict and dispute resolution graduate program. A few months later the ombuds vacancy was advertised as full-time and permanent (but for the same salary as part-time). Following another national search, another out-of-state mediator was hired, yet according to the local newspaper, they quit before they started. When the ombuds position was relisted, it was stripped back to part-time and remained vacant. After the president announced his retirement, the position description was revised a third (and hopefully final) time for a full-time university ombuds for significantly increased compensation. It currently remains open.