SCHWARTZ: For an ombudsman

Dissentary

In November of 2011, President Levin published his response to the recommendations made by the Marshall Committee on campus sexual climate. In it, he accepted nearly all of the committee’s recommendations. One recommendation, perhaps the committee’s most structurally significant, was rejected. The administration should never have ignored the Marshall Committee’s recommendation for the creation of a University-wide ombudsman, and Yale should reconsider its decision immediately.

The office of ombudsman originated in politics and government. There, individuals are appointed to fulfill independent oversight roles, representing the interests of the public and guarding against corruption or faulty administration. But in the last few decades, increasing numbers of private institutions have followed these responsible governments’ lead and have also elected to hire some form of ombudsman. The New York Times’ public editor interacts directly with the Times’ readership, pursuing readers’ concerns and criticizing the paper publicly. Other private corporations have developed similar ombudsman roles that allow employees safe, confidential addresses where they can seek advice or pursue conflict resolution.

The common denominator among these various ombudsman positions is that all are able to operate with far greater freedom than members of the standard institutional hierarchy. All are able to offer advice without compromising the interests or the identities of those who come to them for help. According to one prominent scholar, Charles Howard, ombudsmen receive significantly more complaints than even anonymous hotlines.

The role has received increasing support from theorists and legal scholars seeking to clarify the precise legal obligations of ombudsmen. Unsurprisingly, many universities have chosen to follow other institutions’ lead, creating their own offices of “university ombudsman” tasked with serving as a single address for students and employees to express concerns, manage conflicts and get help navigating the university’s resources. Princeton and Harvard have had such offices up and running for a number of years, and according to the Marshall report, the MIT Ombudsman’s Office has often been cited as an exemplary model.

I often hear students complaining about all sorts of Yale-related issues: the professor who is particularly unkind, an incompetent dean, the inappropriate staff-member or the mental health professional who seems incompetent or callous. And of course, in the last few years, we have heard a great deal about the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment. Although the University has done a great deal to get the word out about resources on this last issue, students and employees likely remain completely in the dark about how and where they should pursue help and advice with other sorts of problems.

No doubt, the University envisioned deans, masters and academic advisers playing a significant role in helping students navigate the University’s institutional bureaucracy. And for many of us, no doubt, these figures do a fine job. But the simple reality is that these individuals are academics, and are part of the formal administrative hierarchy. They have full-time academic jobs, reporting responsibilities that interfere with confidentiality and only limited training and time.

Furthermore, for members of the Yale community who are not undergraduates, there are no clear avenues for reporting and pursuing concerns. Reports have indicated that the recent shenanigans in the Egyptology program were fairly widely known in the graduate student community. One cannot help but wonder whether the University might have intervened earlier had there been a clear address to which concerned graduate students might have turned.

According to his public response to the Marshall report, President Levin tabled the creation of the position of ombudsman out of fear that it would inhibit the streamlining and simplification of resources. This concern is unfounded and completely counterintuitive.

The creation of a formal University ombudsman would allow a central, easily identifiable campus address staffed by individuals who have the time, training and institutional room to really serve as an independent resource. Through a meaningful guarantee of anonymity and trained staff, it would inspire confidence. And by serving as a central clearinghouse for multiple sorts of issues, a University-wide ombudsman would lower the mental and emotional stakes for coming forward, drawing in the hesitant and uncertain. The creation of a University ombudsman would increase clarity, transparency and accessibility. Simply put, there does not appear to be a downside.

In tabling the Marshall committee’s recommendation, President Levin suggested that he might one day reconsider. With a new president on his way in, and a member of the Marshall Committee now serving as University secretary, that day should be now.

Yishai Schwartz is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at yishai.schwartz@yale.edu .

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