The ombuds profession, even I must admit, is not the best known. When people ask what I do, the response is usually “What?” followed by me hurriedly explaining the concept of an ombuds to them, usually ending by describing what it isn’t (part of HR, a therapist, a personal advocate). But once we get that out of the way, people warm to the concept. Or maybe they’re just being nice—it’s hard to tell sometimes. But still, explaining what an ombuds does is usually something of an uphill battle.
On campus, more often than not people refer to me as the “ombudsman,” which makes some sense, since that word describes the office which emerged in Sweden in the early 18th century and which found greater prominence after the Second World War, spreading from its initial Scandinavian foothold to multiple Anglophone countries and, ultimately, around the globe. There are now government, educational, and corporate ombuds on every continent (except, possibly, Antarctica, but you never know).
Ombuds David Rasch has written about exiled Swedish king Charles XII brining back two Turkish innovations to his native land: kofte, which became Swedish meatballs, and the Ottoman official known as the Mohtasib, who investigated complaints and labored to ensure laws were applied fairly and correctly. Charles XII’s establishment of the “High Ombudsman” in 1713 brought the idea of someone outside of regular administrative channels with the authority to act in the interest of constituents to a wider audience. In 1809, Sweden’s parliament took ownership of the office and simplified the name to “Ombudsman.” As this role proliferated in the 20th century, it was almost always designated as “ombudsman.”
As a side note, Rasch cites Alpay Karasoy in noting that Turkey itself abolished the Mohtasib in 1924, but has since established an “ombudsman” office “based on the Swedish model,” which speaks to the global penetration of the “Ombudsman” concept. Many people, even if they have a vague or even no idea of what an ombuds does, have at least heard the word “ombudsman.”
The push for greater gender inclusivity has raised a question: Is “ombudsman” inherently gendered and, as so, exclusionary? I am not a linguist, much less an expert in 18th century Swedish, but I have heard it argued that the –man suffix is not gendered in Swedish (although Rasch reports that native Swedish speakers have informed him that it is, in fact masculine). Still, the argument made throughout the 20th and some of the 21st century was that “ombudsman” was not gender specific and could be applied to men or women in the role.
In general, Western societies have moved away from gendered job descriptions: “chairman” has become “chair,” “policeman” has become “police officer,” “mailman” has become “mail carrier,” and so on. Which might be why several ombuds programs around the world have switched referring to the role as “ombuds” or “ombudsperson,” and why, the group that was founded in 2005 as the International Ombudsman Association has formally changed its name to the International Ombuds Association.
As a way of “walking the walk” of inclusion, it is very important to me that I work in an ombuds office rather than an ombudsman office.
And yet, the majority of people who refer to me or my office fall back on “ombudsman.” Which is far from the worst injustice in the world, I admit—I’m just thrilled that people are thinking of the office—but might paint the role in a way that is less inclusive than it should. So I thought that the best response might be to write a blog post about why I am not the ombudsman.
The ombuds name is deliberate. When I took the job, I chose to style the office as “Ombuds Office” rather than “Office of the Ombudsman” after doing a fair amount of research into offices at other higher education institutions that ended up confirming my own hunches. First, many institutions have already shifted to “ombuds.” Second, “Office of the Ombudsman” seems to put the person before the role, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing in cases where the person exercises executive power but misses the mark for a position that stresses accessibility and informality. While many institutions still do have “ombudsman” office, far more have shifted to “ombuds” or “ombudsperson,” the latter of which seems somewhat clunky to me. So ombuds it is.
Why not “Office of the Ombuds,” then? That might be personal preference, but one rooted in serious consideration. In organizational ombuds practice, we are taught that the focus should never be on us, but rather on the visitor. But doesn’t naming the office in a way that implies it is a monument to our grandeur unnecessarily put the focus on us? “Ombuds Office” seems simple, unpretentious, and easy to fit on letterhead.
There is also the reality that, while I am a man, others working in the office may not be. So “ombuds” is the most accurate name. And I also think that “ombudsman” sounds a bit distant and intimidating, with vague overtones of authority and consequence—the last thing you want for an office that people can visit for informal discussions.
All these are reasons why, following the broader shift in the ombuds profession, UNLV has an ombuds rather than an ombudsman. It is gender-neutral, accessible, and unintimidating. If dropping the “man” from “ombudsman” makes even one person feel better about reaching out to the office, it is well worth it.
And now comes the time when I remind everyone that, yes, we are here for you. 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 off-the-record and confidentially about any work- or campus-related concern, please make an appointment with the Ombuds. Our door is always open.
David G. Schwartz