Students and faculty ramp up calls for Yale to create ombuds office
The University, which is the only Ivy League school without a University-wide independent office dedicated to conflict resolution for students, faculty and staff, has a history of pushing back on the proposal.
Tim Tai, Staff Photographer
Eleven years after an initial recommendation to institute an Ombuds Office, Yale faculty and graduate students are doubling down on their effort to bring the role to campus.
Both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate and the Graduate Students Association have the issue of an ombudsperson on their agenda this school year. An ombudsperson is an official appointed to investigate individuals’ complaints against the administration or faculty advisers.
Jill Campbell, English professor and former FAS Senate, told the News that Yale’s current arrangement for students, faculty or staff to lodge a complaint or receive advice is housed within the University. An Ombuds Office, however, would remain independent from Yale, although it would still be sponsored by the University, she said.
“An ombuds institution is characterized by independence within … an institution,” Campbell told the News. “That’s a really crucial distinction because it means that there aren’t the potential conflicts or even perceived conflicts that [someone], whether a student or a staff person or faculty, might feel going to someone who’s part of the academic or administrative structure and sharing a problem of whatever kind.”
Campbell noted that those who work in an Ombuds Office have their confidentiality protected.
Legally, they cannot be asked to testify about what they are told by a member of the University community, she said.
“It’s supposed to be impartial,” Campbell said. “It’s not representing, trying to defend or advocating any one point of view. And it is informal in that there’s great flexibility in how it could assist someone — so it could just be a chat and some advice or it could be various kinds of interventions.”
Chrishan Fernando GRD ’25, vice president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, told the News that he feels that an Ombuds Office would be “instrumental” in helping students resolve issues where they have very few options.
Fernando explained that the current options for graduate students to reach out to someone about personal or professional issues is “piecemeal,” and that there can be “awkward” instances due to relationships among faculty and administrators that would be fixed with an impartial Ombuds Office.
Why doesn’t Yale have an Ombuds Office?
In April 2011, then-University President Richard Levin created the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate after allegations arose regarding a hostile sexual environment on campus.
Five months later, the committee submitted a report to Levin with six recommendations — among them a request for an “office of organizational (university-wide) ombudsman.” They justified the establishment of such an office by reasoning that “zero-barrier” services would be accessible places for students who were victims of sexual misconduct to find a “confidential, neutral, informal place to bring their concerns.”
The report also mentioned that such an anonymous option to report sexual misonduct was of particular importance for graduate students, as a fear of retaliation by advisers and supervisors might make victims less likely to use the more formal services offered by the University.
In a response to the report, Levin instituted a University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct and boosted resources for a Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Center. However, he did not introduce an ombudsperson to campus.
In the following years, Yale chose not to follow suit with other Ivy League schools, which have all already established an Ombuds Office, as noted by an FAS Senate recommendation submitted to Yale administration in April 2019.
“Yale wants you, the individual, to navigate all the very complicated and localized different kinds of offices and officers to figure out exactly where that individual should go,” Campbell said. “They resist the idea that … someone struggling might need help in finding the right place to go, or even talking over the risks and ramifications of going to talk to that person.”
Yale currently has a multitude of resources available to students, faculty and staff, University spokesperson Karen Peart told the News. Yale “already provides” services which an Ombuds Office would provide, she added.
Peart referenced several offices, including the Title IX office, Human Resources Office and the Provost’s Office, as those which advise and support individuals when they choose to raise a concern or take action when they witness harmful conduct.
“Yale has different subject-specific pathways for faculty and students seeking support and consultation or for reporting grievances,” Peart wrote in an email to the News. “These include ways to report grievances anonymously at a University-wide level as well as confidential, school-level resources. School-level resources are useful since they allow issues to be addressed by professionals who better understand the context in an atmosphere more relaxed than a University-wide office.”
Still, Campbell said she feels that the University can provide more resources for support, and noted that the various offices that do exist can be difficult to navigate.
The Graduate and Professional Student Senate currently lists the establishment of an Ombuds Office in its strategic plan, stating that a “long standing goal” of the senate has been to create a Title VI office or “equivalent ombudsman.” The plan encourages rallies and “visible calls to action” in order to achieve this goal.
In 2018, following GSA advocacy in support of an Ombuds Office, then-Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor told the News that Yale “seriously considered” the possibility of an ombudsman but concluded that it “would not be a good time to create another office.”
Since Fernando joined the GPSS in 2019, creating an Ombuds Office has not been a “major effort” undertaken by the organization, he said. However, this might change with the senate’s current term.
GPSS President J. Nicholas Fisk GRD ’23 wrote to the News that GPSS leaders recently brought up a proposal to have an Ombuds Office in a recent meeting with University administrators.
In addition, Azmi Ahmad, a postdoctoral fellow and former co-chair of the advocacy committee in the Yale Postdoctoral Association, told the News that the YPA brought up the issue of having an Ombuds Office and a grievance procedure in meetings with administrators over the summer and in a second meeting in August. In the initial meeting, he said administrators said they would “look into” their proposal of having an Ombuds Office along with a grievance procedure, and they have not gotten a “clear yes or no” in either meeting.
The FAS has similarly brought up the issue but has yet to see any significant interest from administrators in the development of an Ombuds Office. Former FAS Senator and French lecturer Ruth Koizim told the News that when the FAS Senate brought up the issue of an ombudsperson, they were dismissed.
“We were told … that an Ombudsperson was totally unnecessary, since there is a [dean] whose responsibility consists of assisting faculty with any and all issues,” Koizim wrote in an email to the News. “When we tried to point out that a member of the administration could hardly be viewed as a disinterested/neutral party, we were told that we were being paranoid.”
Campbell said administrators seemed relatively unwilling to credit the testimony that the Yale community feels a need for an Ombuds Office when they discussed the matter with students, faculty and staff.
Still, the University community’s push for such an office continues on for another year.
“There may be hope for the future since the administration is definitely more willing to collaborate with the Senate now than they were in the past,” Koizim told the News.
Harvard established its Ombuds Office in 2003.