2016-2017 Report of the Office of the Ombuds

Lynn Hollen Lees, University Ombuds

The Office of the Ombuds offers a safe space where all members of the Penn community can bring complaints and concerns. We welcome the chance to discuss problems relating to Penn and to explore options for their resolution. During the past year, the University recognized the Ombuds Office as a confidential resource in matters involving sexual harassment, sexual violence, relationship violence and stalking. Both the Ombuds and the Associate Ombuds have undergone training in the counseling of victims of sexual violence. We can provide advice and support, as well as discussion about next steps and the availability of other University resources. 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. We are not agents of the University for purposes of reporting complaints of sexual violence or harassment. 

The Ombuds Office does not take sides in disputes. Rather, we are neutral and independent. We aim to de-escalate tension and to settle problems informally. Although the Office does not carry out investigations, we can make inquiries and seek out information as needed, for purposes of illuminating matters of concern. We cannot impose a particular resolution of a problem, but we can and do advocate for fairness and consistency. When we see patterns of problematic actions, we bring these to the attention of appropriate University administrators. The Ombuds Office operates under guidelines conforming to “best practices” as outlined by the International Ombuds Association. Marcia Martínez-Helfman, the associate ombuds, is a certified mediator. In short, our office is a resource for all members of the Penn community—faculty, staff, graduate and professional students, undergraduates and post-docs—who are having difficulties in any aspect of their work and life on campus. 

During the academic year 2016-2017, our office served 154 visitors from all parts of the University. Of that group, 43 percent were staff, 21 percent graduate and professional students, 20 percent faculty, nine percent undergraduates and three percent post-doctoral fellows. These proportions among our visitors have remained approximately the same since 2011. (See charts 1 and 2.) Our visitors are drawn from all 12 schools and all parts of the Penn community.

Alternative resources are also available to members of the Penn community. The Division of Human Resources, the Offices of the Vice Provost for University Life and Faculty, Dean’s offices, and other resource offices step in to help resolve many disagreements. The Ombuds’ Office offers another option for the discussion of concerns and complaints, as well as for conflict management and mediation of disputes, and we encourage those with unanswered questions or need for advice to consult with us.

During this past year, the office has seen significant shifts in the types of issues that have been brought to our office. The proportion of complaints that concern academic matters—denials of tenure, procedural irregularities, disputes over particular decisions, etc.—has decreased from 30 percent to 25 percent, when 2016-2017 is compared with the period 2011-2016. At the same time, grievances relating to individual behavior—disrespectful treatment, bullying, abusive language, or other inappropriate comments and actions—increased from 16 percent to 23 percent during the same period (See charts 3 and 4). During the past several years, more and more of our visitors have complained about the way they were treated by other members of the Penn community. When an adverse decision is made or there is a disagreement about a policy, what we hear about is not the substance, but rather the manner in which it was communicated and implemented.

Fears about retaliation have made it difficult for some people to raise concerns directly within a department or a work unit. In a diverse community where there are many individual differences that shape opinions and actions, everyone must remember the value of respectful communication and civility. All members of the University community must be treated with respect, whatever their status or points of view. We continue to work with departments and units that have identified issues or situations that have made it difficult for them to function smoothly. In such cases, we have held group meetings and facilitated discussions about outstanding problems. We can also relay concerns, doing “shuttle diplomacy” among the parties to a dispute.

 Questions regarding the rights and responsibilities of those involved in graduate education are regularly brought to our office from different parts of the university. Disagreements over academic policies reveal a lack of transparency in the implementation of those policies, as well as inadequate communication of their substance. What should a student expect from an advisor or a teacher with respect to accessibility, timely commentary on work, or writing recommendations? How should evaluations of performance or decisions about dismissal from a program be handled? Too often, departments do not have detailed guidelines or handbooks that specify policies and promote consistency and clarity. Irregular contacts between faculty and students compound these problems. Post-doctoral fellows also have raised questions about their rights and responsibilities, complaining of their treatment by faculty supervisors. When there is a lack of written procedures, the ability of faculty, students and post-docs to resolve disputes is hampered. 

Our office is located in 113 Duhring Wing adjoining the Fisher Fine Arts Library in the center of the Penn campus. We can be reached by phone at (215) 898-8261 or at Office of the University Ombuds. Please consult our website for more information on our office and its activities. We respond to inquiries quickly, and we encourage anyone experiencing difficulties related to their work, academics, or any other aspect of life as a member of the Penn community to set up an appointment. Our office is staffed during regular business hours. The Ombuds Office keeps neither the names of visitors nor written records. Those who wish to speak with us may do so without providing names or other identifying information if they so choose.

Table 1

July 1, 2016-June 30, 2017
 NumberPercentage
Visitors154100%
Visitors by Issues Raised
Academic, General106.49%
Academic Integrity31.95%
Academic Procedures1811.69%
Academic Research74.55%
Employment, General3220.78%
Employment, Promotion85.19%
Employment, Compensation63.90%
Employment, Benefits10.65%
Employment, Procedures117.14%
Procedures, General63.90%
Miscellaneous, Personal106.49%
Financial Matters74.55%
Student Services00.00%
Discrimination10.65%
Sexual Harassment00.00%
Behavior3422.08%
Other00.00%
Visitors by Status
Staff6642.86%
Faculty3120.13%
Post-Doctorates53.25%
Students - Undergraduates149.09%
Students - Graduate/Professional3321.43%
Other53.25%

Chart 1

2016-2017 Visitors by Status
Staff
43%
66
Faculty
20%
31
Post-Doctorate
3%
5
Undergraduate
9%
14
Graduate/Professional
21%
33
Other
3%
5
TOTAL
100%
154

Chart 1

Chart 2

2011-2016 Visitors by Status
Staff
42%
304
Faculty
21%
150
Post-Doctorate
4%
27
Residents
0%
2
Undergraduate
11%
81
Graduate/Professional
20%
145
Other
3%
22
TOTAL
100%
731

Chart 2

Chart 3

2016-2017 Visitors by Issue
Academic Related
25%
38
Employment Related
38%
58
Behavior
23%
35
Other
15%
23
TOTAL
100%
154

Chart 2

Chart 4

2011-2016 Visitors by Issue
Academic Related30%221
Employment Related39%286
Behavior16%118
Other15%106
TOTAL100%731

Chart 2