• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Ombudspeople

How does the position work effectively?

 

May 22, 2019
 
 

This week, in conversation with a longtime friend, she mentioned that her college hired an “ombudsperson” to mediate all sorts of complaints. I’m having some trouble wrapping my head around the idea.

The only time I’ve worked anywhere that had someone like that, to the extent that it counts as working, was when I was a summer intern in the mayor’s office in college.  The city had an ombudsperson who fielded citizen complaints and was charged with routing them to the correct offices and trying to foster a satisfactory resolution. She was a nice person, but the response whenever anyone saw her coming was to duck.  She might as well have been dressed as the Grim Reaper.

(Title IX officers often suffer a similar fate.  We had one who retired recently, but after working with her for a couple of years, it became a running joke that she never called just to say everything was going along just swimmingly.)

Worse, the ombudsperson, by definition, generally lacks the positional authority to resolve most issues themselves.  Over time, based on what I saw all those years ago, she came to be seen as a sort of well-meaning irritation to be minimized whenever possible. 

I’m reluctant to declare based on one summer’s worth of observation of one person that the concept is doomed.  But I’m having a hard time picturing how the role could work well.

If the ombudsperson is too clearly what Tom Wolfe called a “flak catcher,” they will be ineffective as people realize that complaining to them is like yelling into a pillow.  If the ombudsperson is too much of a complainer’s advocate, they’ll quickly find themselves perceived, and treated, by staff as a sort of hostile occupying force.

I’ve mentioned that one of the more shocking elements of deanships, in the contexts in which I’ve seen them, is just how little actual positional authority they carry.  Ombuds carry even less than that, which is saying something. Worse, almost by definition, they have to be fluent in the entire organization, rather than in just one part of it.  A dean of, say, Humanities or STEM, can get by with pretty minimal knowledge of the athletics program; an ombuds can’t.

So, this is really an open question to folks who have seen ombuds positions work well. How do well-functioning ones work? How do they avoid the fates of becoming either the Angel of Death or the Human Circular File?  I’m honestly struggling to picture it.





 

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