Yale University continues to be the only Ivy league university without a university-wide ombudsperson: a neutral, impartial and confidential authority that one can approach for resolving issues pertaining to fairness and equity.
In 2011, the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate proposed a university-wide ombudsperson for Yale. The committee reasoned that an impartial and confidential ombudsperson would enhance the resources for addressing sexual misconduct on the campus. However, this proposal was quickly shot down by the then outgoing University President Richard Levin for being unworthy of his efforts in his last days in the office. Levin averred that this new initiative would only further complicate the existing system for addressing sexual misconduct. Even so, in the wake of the 2011 report, the existing mechanism, Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Center, or SHARE, was lent more staff and resources.
The University has still not come up with a viable plan to move away from two apparently contradictory goals: the need for an ombudsperson to enhance the available resources for addressing sexual misconduct and make it more efficient on one side and the dangers of having an extra office, albeit informal and neutral, meddling in the already elaborate set up for addressing Title IX cases, or sexual misconduct, on the other. But this binary argument rests on a limited understanding of what a university ombudsperson should do.
The Yale experience is instructive to all the higher educational institutions grappling with the following questions: What does an ombuds do? How does the ombuds office work without conflicts and making itself a mere extension of other campus offices? The core of the ombuds office should be built on a commitment to general principles of fairness, equity, impartiality and confidentiality rather than the need to address specific issues like sexual or racial harassment. Such a broad mandate not only helps avoid conflicts with other offices but also helps the ombuds act as a neutral arbiter on a host of issues. In a complex university setting, it is hard to predict what those issues might be.
For example, unfairness can creep in at various levels: between an advisor and advisee, between a staff and their boss, between two students and so on. The magnitude of the issue on hand could vary from a willfully noisy and disruptive roommate to an advisor who never files recommendation letters on time, or is not accessible to their students, from a staff member who sits on a payment check for “no good reason” to sexual misconduct between two members of the university community. In fact, when we take things to the level of equity and fairness, there is no practical limit to the number of issues that could come under these two heads.
After assessing the facts, if a complaint is suitable for another office, the ombuds will refer it to that office. But in making referrals, a core function of the ombuds office, no conflict or duplication of the functions of other offices is anticipated. Often, it is minor conflicts, like the ones mentioned above, that existing legal and administrative structures within the university are ill-equipped to address without someone enabling and empowering the complainant. An ombuds office should address the “popular illegalities,” to borrow a Foucauldian term, that fall through the cracks of our university system.
The institution of campus ombudsperson is as old as the history of ombudsperson in the United States, as the first ombuds offices in the country appeared on campuses in the 1960s. Even if Yale debates a campus-wide ombudsperson, presumably on the model of Harvard or other Ivies, the University could immediately institute an Office of the Student Ombudsperson to advocate for fairness and equity in the lives of all students on campus — from freshman to Ph.D. students.
Look at other universities. While most of the universities, including Harvard, have a campus-wide ombuds office that is open to everyone in the university, there are some universities that have limited services for ombuds. The University of Chicago, one of the first universities in the United States to have an ombuds office, has the office of the student ombuds instead of a campus-wide ombuds office. And at Brown University, college students are not allowed to access their campus-wide ombuds. Yale could thus create a limited ombudsperson for students.
Regardless of whether Yale chooses to introduce a university-wide ombudsperson, Yale should consider establishing the office of student ombudsperson who will serve each and every student on matters pertaining to equity and fairness in so far as it relates to their university life. The ombudsperson and associate ombudspersons should have complete authority to investigate cases, recommend remedies and publish their reports on visible platforms,including campus newspapers. Compared to campus-wide ombuds, student ombuds have certain advantages in advocating for fairness — periodic turnovers bringing in new ideas and the ability to offer peer-support. Besides, student ombuds is a lot more economical for the University than a campus-wide ombuds. This is the model that has been in vogue in the University of Chicago since 1968.
The Office of the Student Ombuds will have an impact in making students active seekers of fairness and justice, that is a willingness to overcome the fear of retaliation and, in certain circumstances, reveal their identity in order to more effectively pursue the cause of justice.
While students need to be forthcoming with their complaints and brave enough to stand with them, with collaboration and consultation with various campus and student bodies, a culture of students actively seeking fairness can be introduced on Yale’s campus.
SARATH PILLAI MSL ’18 is a graduate of Yale Law School. He is a Ph.D. Candidate in History and has served as an associate student ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.