It was encouraging to read in the March 9 online edition of the Yale Daily News that the faculty continues to advocate for a university-wide organizational ombudsman at Yale. I have thought for some time that Yale was missing a major opportunity to be a leader in modern conflict resolution techniques.
In 2011, the Marshall Advisory Committee on Campus Climate issued a report on campus climate and how it could be improved to deal with sensitive issues. Then-president Levin and the University Provost, Peter Salovey, in their response to the Marshall report, adopted all the Committee’s recommendations except one — the creation of a university-wide ombuds. Now the News article reports that the FAS-SEAS Senate has renewed its dialogue with university leaders about the benefits of this informal conflict communications channel. This is a very positive development.
Based on his statements in 2011 and more recently in response to the FAS-SEAS Senate’s initiative, President Salovey appears to not fully understand the role and potential of a university-wide ombuds. He indicated that he believes that the ombuds may be just another of the university’s formal channels such as SHARE, the UWC, Title IX Coordinators, Deans’ offices and other formal options. In fact, the ombuds function is an informal channel — a clearinghouse where individuals can go to raise their concerns, learn about remedial options and receive guidance as to how to proceed with more formal functions. It is independent, impartial, informal and confidential.
Properly structured, with a charter conforming to the Standards of Conduct of the International Ombuds Association, the ombuds function is not a place of notice to the university. Rather it serves as a safe place to surface issues. Even in a well-managed organization, there is a phenomenon known as “dangerous silence” where individuals are reluctant to speak up because of a fear of retaliation, embarrassment or simply looking ignorant. Contrary to the perception by some university officials, the ombuds does not formally investigate complaints, rather it facilitates conflict resolution by the proper officials who do have investigatory powers. Based on what it hears, the ombuds do keep statistical data on procedures and policies that need improvement. Contrary to President Salovey’s comments in your article, ideally the ombuds does report this data to the Corporation and the President periodically for review and remedial systemic action.
President Salovey has expressed concern that the presence of an ombuds might diminish the number of issues that reach the appropriate university officials. Experience indicates that, with an ombuds present, more issues of concern are brought to formal university functions for consideration. Salovey posits a question: “…we have such explicit pathways for making complaints … that the concern is, would adding yet another way to talk about those kinds of matters make things more confusing or less confusing?” In the case of the ombuds, the answer is a resounding “less confusing.”
Along with other alumni, I hope that the Corporation and the President will take time to be fully briefed on how a “best in class” ombuds program could enhance the effectiveness of all formal channels that are available to students, faculty, administrators, support staff and trustees at Yale. Implementing an ombuds program would further promote a culture of trust and the kind of campus climate that everyone would like to experience in the Yale community.
Jim Hostetler ’55