With new allegations of sexual misconduct by professors and students seeming to surface each week, Yale’s Graduate Student Assembly is reviving efforts to create a university-wide ombuds office — a body tasked with informally addressing all kinds of misconduct across the University.
Yale is now the only Ivy League school without a university-wide organizational ombuds office — a neutral or impartial dispute resolution office that offers independent, informal and confidential assistance to community members. Currently, the medical school is the only school at Yale with an ombudsman.
But the GSA is trying to change that. GSA Chair Wendy Xiao GRD ’18 MED ’18 is spearheading the effort to gather information to develop a persuasive case for why Yale should create a university-wide body and a vision of what that body would look like at Yale. As part of those efforts, Xiao has been in contact with Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews ’83 LAW ’86 and the Medical School’s ombudsperson, Merle Waxman, as well as other universities’ ombuds offices.
“There are a lot of legal and ethical issues that have to be worked out with establishing an ombuds office because it is confidential, but I think the ethics are in favor of establishing one,” Xiao said. “I think it will create a better environment overall, not just in terms of sexual climate, but in terms of overall atmosphere and general wellness.”
This is not the first time members of the Yale community have lobbied for the creation of such an office. In 2011 the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate suggested the creation of a university-wide ombuds office as one of several recommendations for the University. But the creation of such an office was the only one of the report’s several recommendations that former University President Richard Levin rejected, citing concerns that an ombuds office would complicate Yale’s newly established University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, a recommendation in the same report.
“The University seriously considered the possibility of an ombudsman but concluded that, in light of the community’s clear call for Yale to simplify and streamline its processes and programs, it would not be a good time to create another office,” Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor President wrote in an email to the News. “The University regularly reviews the effectiveness of its mechanisms to assure that they provide sufficient means for confidential consultation and effective resolution.”
O’Connor added that if the Yale deems those mechanisms insufficient, it may add programs, such as an ombuds office. In 2010, the University established a hotline for tips relating to for concerns in the workplace or elsewhere, and in October, it introduced dean’s designees in Yale College and the graduate and professional schools to hear student concerns about any form of discrimination and harassment.
Typically, ombuds can offer confidential advice on how to deal with workplace conflicts, act as an informal mediators and help de-escalate conflicts, said Lynn Hollen Lees, ombuds of the University of Pennsylvania. Because ombuds offices are confidential, they offer alternative venues for people who may not otherwise be willing to come forward to raise concerns, according to Brown University ombuds Ruthy Rosenberg. Because ombuds can talk to people across a university, they play an important role in addressing systemic issues and providing information for developing new and improved policy, Rosenberg added.
“The existence of an ombuds office that serves the University community demonstrates that the university is interested in hearing from all constituents,” Rosenberg said. “It is a message that the university is interested in dealing with issues of importance to all members of the community; and it is a message that the University is interested in being a community.”
Xiao told the News that graduate students in particular would benefit from an ombuds office because of the “stark power dynamic” between graduate students and their advisors. Advisors have full control over decisions with lasting impact on their advisees’ future careers, such as whether or not their students can proceed with their dissertations or receive recommendations or fellowships.
Currently, the official way to resolve a conflict with an advisor is via the director of graduate studies in a particular department. Students may otherwise speak to Associate Dean of Graduate Student Academic Support Richard Sleight. Unlike an ombuds, though, deans and directors of graduate studies are neither impartial nor held to standards of confidentiality. Several graduate students have asked Xiao why Yale does not have an ombuds office, she said.
As part of the project, the GSA is trying to figure out the reasoning behind the administration’s “reluctance” to establish a university-wide office. Xiao said she thinks that, in part, the administration is concerned about the legal implications of having such an office.
But Lees said that her office at Penn does not share this concern. There, ombuds office staff members are not obligated reporters, and they do not keep formal records that could be subpoenaed for a court case. Rather, Lees said, her office can help solve conflicts that might otherwise have escalated.
Rosenberg told the News that though Brown’s Ombuds Office is not a place of legal notice to the university, an ombuds can still find ways of directing issues to the proper channels without revealing complainants’ identities.
“Neutrality does not equal passivity,” Rosenberg said. “Not all issues are brought forward through formal places of notice, such as human resources or administrators, and an ombuds will not get every issue reported, but the existence of an ombuds will increase the number of issues reported or dealt with.”
Lees emphasized that in the over 40 years that Penn’s ombuds office has existed, it has been “a trusted space on the university campus” without fostering any controversy.
Adelaide Feibel | firstname.lastname@example.org