As part of my drive to be the best ombuds for UNLV that I can (and, I won’t deny it, because they are extremely interesting people), I’ve cultivated as many opportunities as I can to speak with ombuds at other colleges, laboratories, and universities. I’m writing about this today because I spent time last week at my first in-person gathering of ombuds. Getting to relate with my peers from other institutions in person rather than over Zoom or Google Meet (or Microsoft Teams) helped me reflect on the importance of ombuds in an academic setting and, more personally, my own role here at UNLV.
I enjoyed the benefit of candid shop talk with ombuds from small colleges and big universities, teaching institutions and research powerhouses. Schools that were founded before the Declaration of Independence was written, and ones that are younger than UNLV—as diverse a group as can be imagined. In other words, this is likely a representative sample of current North American institutions of higher education.
And what comes to mind is Leo Tolstoy’s most famous sentence, the first line of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
By which I mean that every organization has its difficulties. Sometimes, in our little bubble, we imagine that our institution is exceptionally or even uniquely dysfunctional. But while the small details may differ, it is simultaneously comforting and disturbing to realize that even if you ended up somewhere else, you’d still be rolling the dice. Some things might be better, but more likely than not, others would be worse.
So with all modesty, I would like to put my own twist on Tolstoy: “All universities are alike in how they publicly present a happy face, but behind the scenes they are all unhappy in their own way.” That might be the exact opposite of what Tolstoy was trying to say—I’m not sure. But I do know that it reflects my current feeling, viz. the grass not only isn’t always greener on other campuses, but it’s quite possibly considerably less green. It might be hard to believe, living in a desert, but it rings true for me.
It’s a little like when I learned—and this may be not-great psychology, but it squares with my anecdotal observations of human behavior—that people tend towards the same level of happiness throughout their lives. In other words, winning the lottery won’t make them any happier, long-term. It was scary to imagine that I am now as happy as I’ll ever be, but a little comforting to think that, whatever life throws at me, I’ll gravitate back to my current state.
I realize this might be hard to hear (or read). A lot of us imagine what life would be like if conditions were better. What if I were surrounded by people who actually got me? What if I worked for someone who was more supportive? What if I was nurtured by a culture of innovation and self-actualization? I would then be the person I was meant to—the Platonic ideal, so to speak, instead of the accidental, day-to-day mortal that barely makes it through the week.
But talking with folks at other institutions, I’m starting to think that there is no utopia waiting for us. Wherever we go, we will find problems. While you might be thinking that this is the worst possible work environment for you, it’s just as likely that it is the best. Let that sink in.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you are currently in the best of all possible workplaces in the best of all possible worlds. Quite the contrary; you’re not in the perfect workplace, not because of some flaw unique to our institution, but because there is no perfect situation.
That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine cases of toxicity and dysfunction here, or anywhere else. There are. And sometimes a job—or a workplace—just isn’t the right fit. There is nothing wrong with moving on in those cases. But it should be done with open eyes, and the knowledge that there will be challenges in the future.
All of this means that, if we aren’t happy at work, we should first look for ways we can make changes. Just because this isn’t paradise, it doesn’t mean we can act meaningfully to make improvements. Whatever our position, we share in the responsibility of creating a workplace culture. What do our contributions say about us?
Certainly, it is not an easy path. There may be conflicts along the way. So it’s a good thing that whether you are a student, faculty member, or other UNLV employee, the Ombuds Office has many resources available to help you through any stage of a conflict. If you are having an issue and are uncertain where to go, it is an excellent zero-barrier first stop. If you would like to talk privately and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds.
David G. Schwartz