Lynn Hollen Lees, Ombudsman
The Office of the Ombudsman was created at the University of Pennsylvania to serve as a central place where anyone in the Penn community can bring problems and concerns for impartial discussion. In the wake of student demonstrations on the campus in the late 1960s, a Task Force on University Governance recommended the creation of the position, and the Faculty Senate supported the proposal. In 1971, Penn’s then President Martin Meyerson appointed the first Ombudsman, Joel Conarroe, professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences. At the present time, Lynn Hollen Lees, professor of history emerita, serves as Ombudsman, and Marcia Martinez-Helfman, JD, MSW, is the Associate Ombudsman.
The mandate of the Ombudsman’s office is large: any member of the Penn community may bring to us a problem or matter of concern related to the University. We offer a neutral place where individuals can get information, voice dissatisfactions, and explore ways to resolve differences. Our aim is to de-escalate tension and to settle disputes informally. We can explain University policies and procedures and help visitors evaluate their options. Our office offers help with conflict resolution and, if appropriate, mediation services. We are able to carry out informal inquiries about the underlying circumstances of issues brought to our attention, although we do not conduct formal investigations. Often we refer visitors to other University resources, but we also can and do bring patterns of problems forward to appropriate administrators. Our mission is to improve those conditions which hinder members of the Penn community from functioning or which diminish their satisfaction with their work, studies, teaching, research or any other aspect of their lives at Penn. We do not take sides in a dispute. Although we have no power to impose a particular resolution of a problem, we do advocate for fairness and consistency. Our office is pledged to promote fair and equitable treatment of all members of the Penn community. Our office has established guidelines for practice that address its independence, neutrality, confidentiality and informality.
Our office values the privacy of those who consult us. We will neither identify our visitors nor discuss their concerns with anyone unless we have been given explicit permission to do so. The only exceptions to confidentiality arise when there is a risk of imminent harm to the visitor or to someone else, or if we have a legal obligation to disclose information.
In July 2016, our office was added to the list of confidential resources available to faculty, students and staff under the revised Sexual Violence, Relationship Violence and Stalking Policy and Sexual Harassment Policy. We can provide counseling and support, as well as discussion of other University resources and possible next steps for any affected parties. The Office of the Ombudsman is a confidential and safe space where visitors may voice their concerns and weigh their options. During the past academic year, 150 visitors raised a wide variety of issues with our office (see Table 1). The largest number were University employees (41%). Significant numbers of faculty (26%), graduate students (19%), and undergraduates (9%) also contacted us. In comparison to total consultations during the previous four years (2011-2015), the proportion of faculty using our services has risen while the proportion of undergraduates has decreased slightly (see Table 2). Alumni, former students and staff and parents also sometimes communicate with us.
During the past year, the number of complaints about inappropriate or abusive behavior has risen sharply in comparison to the period 2011-2015, and they constitute the largest single category of our cases. Protests against abrasive and abusive treatment have come to us from people in all parts of the University. Some perceive that they are being treated with a lack of respect; others feel that they are being bullied. The fear of retaliation discourages many from open complaints. The common denominator in such cases is the disparity in power wielded by supervisors over employees, faculty over students, and tenured faculty over untenured faculty or adjuncts.
The examples that are brought to our office signal a lack of consensus about acceptable modes of communication. The manner in which an unfavorable review is delivered can be just as or even more important than the bad news itself. Much more work needs to be done to maintain open lines of respectful communication and to foster greater trust across the University. The challenge is to identify more effective ways to ensure accountability in instances of unfair treatment. We have raised these issues with a number of University leaders and will continue to engage in these conversations.
A growing number of individuals have brought to our office disputes over rights related to academic publications and the use of data generated within a lab or a research unit. Post-doctoral fellows might believe that they are not receiving appropriate credit for contributions made to jointly authored articles. The departure of a faculty member and an associated research project sometimes gives rise to ongoing conflict over access to, and permission to employ, previously generated data. These complaints arise in multiple schools and have been brought to the Office of the Ombudsman by students, faculty and staff. The frequency with which such issues arise suggests the need for a clear, comprehensive and accessible statement of school-specific policies that address authorship rights and responsibilities among faculty and associated researchers, procedures for disclosure of conflicts and processes for the resolution of disputes over publications. schools should also provide routine training for faculty and research staff to promote understanding of these policies. We are exploring this issue with the schools.
Recurring questions about academic policies across the Penn community suggest a lack of clarity regarding the rights and responsibilities of those involved in graduate education. This issue adversely affects relationships between faculty and students, among faculty members and among students. What should a student expect from an advisor or a teacher with respect to accessibility, to timely commentary on work, or to the writing of recommendations? How should evaluations of performance or decisions about termination from a program be handled? Faculty members sometimes find themselves in disagreement over who has primary responsibility for advising a student and for allocating funding. The absence of clear policies in these areas can produce tension among students because of perceptions of unequal treatment. The great differences among disciplines and Schools across the University suggests that a uniform code would not be appropriate. Each school should consider, however, developing statements detailing the academic rights and responsibilities of faculty and students. The school can determine whether these articulated practices should be formulated at the departmental level or school-wide. In light of the fact that each school is required to have its own Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility, perhaps these groups could be tasked with the development of appropriate statements and procedures. We have begun conversations at the University and school level about the need for such policies.
In any given year, our office sees only a tiny fraction of the University community, the dissatisfied who are seeking options and possible solutions or who decide to take action. Yet even if the vast majority of those on campus are satisfied and working productively, efforts to improve communication, to promote transparency and to ensure fairness will benefit all. To this end, we applaud the Provost’s ongoing Campaign for Community and urge all to support it. We also encourage those with concerns related to the University to contact our office so that we can explore solutions for issues that are troubling them.
The office is located in 113 Duhring Wing, adjoining the Fisher Fine Arts Library in the center of the Penn campus. Our website (www.upenn.edu/ombudsman/) gives information on the office and its activities, as well as contact information. The office can be reached by telephone at (215) 898-8261 or online through the office website. We respond to inquiries quickly, and anyone experiencing difficulties who would like to speak with us is encouraged to set up an appointment. Our office is an autonomous unit, independent of the organizational hierarchies of all the schools and overseen only by the President’s Office. As a confidential resource, we keep neither the names of visitors nor written records of discussions. Individuals who request a meeting need not disclose their identities and may remain anonymous.
*Data for 2013-2014 may be incomplete due to some unreported visits.