November 13, 2020

Work With Your Ombuds Office to Help Promote Fairness

Both students and ombudspersons play essential roles in fighting for equity and justice.

Modern universities often work like ministates. They are undergirded by a vast array of policies, laws, guidelines, and codes, beyond ordinary expectations of fairness and justice. In this labyrinthine educational complex, an ombudsperson is a friendly, confidential, and nonpartisan resource for making our lives on campus less iniquitous. Despite its vital role, the remit of the Office of the Student Ombudsperson is often shrouded in mystery. This mystery is two-sided: On one side, there is the absence of readily accessible information about the existence of the ombuds office. On the other, there is ambiguity as to what the ombuds office will be able to do on a certain matter. These can be addressed to a large extent by outreach and a more proactive role in calling out unfairness wherever it exists, even though the office doesn’t have the power to effect changes on its own. Equally important is the commitment of the student body to call upon this office as a valuable resource to establish fairness on campus.

The University of Chicago was one of the first universities in the United States to establish the Office of the Student Ombudsperson in 1968. It is noteworthy that the institution of ombudsperson first came to the United States in the 1960s—a decade known for civil rights movements and student protests—through universities, even before it found acceptability among state governments. Even today, only a few states—Hawaii, Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and Arizona—have state-level ombudspersons appointed by the legislature. Provost Edward Levi, in establishing this office, hoped that it would “help students receive fair solutions to University-related concerns.” Student ombudspersons and their associate(s) were to offer peer support, albeit neutral and confidential, to all  students. This model is quite different from that of the Ivy League schools, which have professional campus ombudspersons catering to the needs of the entire university community—students, staff, and faculty alike. However, in some schools, for example Brown University, undergraduate students are not permitted to approach the campus ombudsperson.

In contrast, UChicago students form the major clientele for the student ombudsperson at UChicago. The issues they bring range from roommate conflicts to academic issues to even off-campus issues (e.g. issues with landlords) over which the ombudsperson has no control or knowledge. A perusal of some of the old annual reports of the ombudsperson’s office, published in The Chicago Maroon, will confirm that the dominance of academic issues is not new, as reports from the early 1980s tell the same story.

Broadly speaking, and drawing from personal experience, there are three types of concerns that come to an ombudsperson at UChicago. First, those that just require listening. Sometimes, especially in a university setting, complainants want someone confidential and trustworthy to just listen to and empathize with them. Most of the time, minor academic matters (e.g. grade disputes, misunderstandings between students and instructors, etc.), over which instructors and professors have the final word, are such cases where nothing much could be done except listening and thus having a therapeutic impact on the complainant. Second, those that are merely about misinformation or misunderstanding. Here, the ombudsperson often supplies the information that is needed. For instance, if someone received contradictory information from two different offices, or if they want to appeal a decision, which they can but have been told otherwise, then the ombudsperson will just supply them with the right information and will help them navigate the system. In other words, helping students navigate procedures in a fair manner (procedural fairness), especially when it involves more than one office, is a typical concern for the ombuds office.

Finally, and most importantly, an ombudsperson is able to investigate complaints either with or without divulging the identity of the complainant. After investigation, which often involves collecting and verifying written and oral facts, if the ombudsperson is convinced that the complainant was mistreated or has a genuine case, then they would ask for redressal. This can be done privately with the concerned official/person. If they do not listen, the ombuds office can publicize the recommendation they made on that instance to create public awareness about the issue on campus. The annual reports that the ombuds office files are publicly available and should ideally trigger debates on policy changes. But the key here is that the ombudsperson has no power to get University officials to implement, or even heed, their recommendations.

The ombuds office is not required to keep any records pertaining to a case. Often there is no documentary evidence of the ombudsperson having met with someone to discuss an issue at all. This goes a long way in maintaining confidentiality about people and facts. If a dispute that an ombudsperson looked into turns into a legal matter for a court, as it does on rare occasions, then the ombudsperson might be asked to verify certain facts. But they have no liability for not having kept any records pertaining to that case before it became a legal matter.

The job of a university-wide ombudsperson with a remit to look into issues of equity and fairness is fairly onerous and expansive. An ombudsperson is not representing just one party as an advocate or lawyer (a law degree is often not required for being an ombudsperson), but they can and should be an advocate for fairness and equity.

At UChicago, what we lack is an ombudsperson for staff and faculty. While some specialized divisions like the Biological Sciences Division or departments like the Department of Chemistry have their own ombudspersons, we lack a university-wide ombudsperson who can look into issues that are brought up by any member of the University.

The Office of the Student Ombudsperson at UChicago is an old institution, almost as old as the institution of ombudsperson in the U.S., that has served the needs of the student community for over 50 years now. While historical trends suggest that undergraduate students have been the major clientele, it is important that graduate students, especially Ph.D. students, because of the length and nature of their programs involving close interactions with their thesis advisors, also consider the office a vital resource that they can utilize to resolve conflicts or to find a listener who appreciates the value of cognitive empathy, especially because ombudspersons tend to be graduate students.

The real challenge to the office, one that is essential for its continuing importance, is the willingness of the office to stay true to its core responsibility: “to call attention to any injustices and abuses of power or discretion.” Student ombudspersons may face certain constraints when it comes to calling a spade a spade in a dispute, especially when faculty or those in positions of power are involved. Equally disabling is the unwillingness of complainants to either break their anonymity or overcome fear of retaliation and come out as active*seekers of fairness. By building networks and alliances with like-minded campus offices and staff (Title IX, the Office for Equal Opportunity Programs, Bias Education & Support Team (BEST), and the College advisers, among others), and by espousing faith in the immunities promised to ombudspersons, the ombuds office might be able to surmount the hurdles complainants may face in calling out injustices. Experience suggests that college advisers play an important role in directing students to the ombuds office when matters of equity and fairness are involved.

As the University evolves into an increasingly complex organization with each passing year, we will continue to need a confidential and nonpartisan office run by students with no University interference to resolve conflicts and problems that may or may not be the result of our making. The ombuds office will be defined by the nature of the issues and conflicts that come up for consideration just as its vitality, as an institution standing for fairness, will be defined by how these issues and conflicts are addressed. In that process, both the ombuds office and the student community have an equal role to play. The willingness to call out unfairness by the office should be matched by the willingness of those who approach it to become active seekers of fairness.

Sarath Pillai has served as an associate student ombudsperson at the University of Chicago. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History.