When I mention my job (UNLV’s Ombuds, if you didn’t already know), I get a lot of questions, mostly about what I do and how. But there’s one question I rarely get asked, either because people already know the answer or they’re too polite: why do we have an ombuds in the first place?
If they asked, I could give a boilerplate answer: that the ombuds, by listening, discussing options, and facilitating informal conflict resolution, helps make the university a better place to work and learn. And I strongly believe that’s true. But the answer goes even deeper than that. To understand why, I would like to explore how universities have, over the past 50 years, increasingly turned to ombuds.
As a profession, ombuds trace their origins to 19th century Sweden, when the first ombudsman began practicing as a representative of the people, receiving complaints against the government. Classical ombuds, investigating on behalf of individuals and groups, grew slowly over the next 150 years, chiefly in European and Anglosphere countries. Then, starting in the 1960s, a conflict resolution wave swept North America, with government and educational institutions creating ombuds offices. The first higher education ombuds office, at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia opened in 1965. Eastern Montana opened the first in the United States the following year, and Michigan State University became the first large American university with an ombuds office in 1967.
Colleges and universities across North America introduced ombuds offices throughout the 1970s, with as many as 190 in service by the end of the decade, with major adjustments to the classical model. Initially serving students, they focused more on communication and reconciliation between parties than investigation. Unlike their Scandinavian counterparts, whose files were generally open to the media, they maintained confidentiality for their visitors. Because those visiting the office feared retaliation or other adverse consequences if their grievances were directly known, ombuds placed a greater premium on confidentiality.
The result was an office well suited to higher education. Potential visitors could bring their concerns with no fears about a paper trail or formal action being taken without their consent. This protection gives people the space they need to get perspective on what they are going through and consider their options—which may ultimately include formal action of some kind, but that can be pursued at the visitor’s sole discretion.
Though initially adopted to mitigate student grievances in the 1960s, many ombuds offices served primarily faculty and staff, such as Mary Rowe’s groundbreaking practice at MIT. As with the student population, faculty and staff can occupy precarious roles in the university hierarchy. As such, it is crucial for them to have a neutral place to turn when facing a conflict.
As an aside, precarity—meaning a state of unpredictability or insecurity—seems embedded into academia. It wouldn’t be fair to say that many students, faculty and staff have no rights or options, but these may be limited in ways surprising to those outside of the institution. An article I recently reviewed claimed that undergraduate students were the most vulnerable population at a university. From one perspective, I can see that being true: Their schedules can be uncertain, they generally lack positional authority, and, particularly among first generation populations, may not know the rules of the game, written and unwritten. Yet they also have power, not the least of which is the ability to choose another institution. There’s pushback against the “treating the student like a customer” mindset in higher education, but it’s probably a good idea to remember that they have many options to choose from.
Listening to various groups on campus, including classified staff, administrative faculty, and academic faculty of all stripes, I’ve gotten buffet-sized servings of precarity: arbitrary managerial scheduling decisions, limited options for advancement, vague tenure guidance, contradictory or absent mentoring, lack of program support—there is no shortage of people who could make a strong claim to being the most vulnerable on campus. And, in their own way, they’re each right, though I’ve got to say that I don’t envy postdocs, whose job is by its nature temporary and who seem to be completely dependent on their supervisor not just for present evaluation, but for future prospects in the form of a recommendation.
I like to think of our Ombuds Office as a levelling force. Whether someone is a new classified staff member, an undergraduate student, a tenured full professor, or a longtime administrative faculty member, they have access to the same information and resources through this office.
I work in the Ombuds Office with the conviction that I am doing essential work to foster our campus values, particularly Access and Equity. In many organizations, those with privileged institutional access, either through a long tenure or simply being friends with the right people, have an advantage over those who lack such access. It is important to me that our office opens those same advantages to anyone who walks through the door (or makes a phone or remote appointment). I’d also like to mention Compassion and Inclusion as a driving force behind the office, because this is a place where anyone can come and discuss their work or educational issues in a kind and supportive setting. Does everyone who sees me have their problem “fixed” in an hour? No, but they all walk out knowing more than they did when they came in, and to me that’s a step in the right direction.
So if the what is listening, discussing options, and assisting in the informal resolution of conflicts, and the how is the International Ombuds Associations’ Standards of Practice and Ethical Principles, the why of UNLV’s Ombuds Office is quite simply to make this a more accessible, more equitable, and more inclusive university. Anytime someone has a better idea of their options, and a greater knowledge of what’s possible, we win.
Which is all my way of saying that, no matter who you are, if you aren’t as happy as you would like here, a visit to the Ombuds Office might be a good idea. Whether you are a student, faculty member, or other UNLV employee, the Ombuds Office has many resources available to help you through any conflict or communication issue you might be facing. If you are having an issue and are uncertain where to go, it is an excellent zero-barrier first stop. You have nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain.
If you would like to talk privately and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is always open.
David G. Schwartz