2017-2018 Report of the Office of the Ombuds

Lynn Hollen Lees, University Ombuds

The purpose of the Office of the Ombuds is to help members of the Penn community who are experiencing problems or conflict related to their work, academic or living experiences at the University. We offer mediation services with the aim of helping individuals resolve differences. Our door is open equally to students, staff and faculty, and we work to resolve the issues that are troubling them. The principles that guide our interactions with visitors are described on our website and can be summarized as follows:

  • Confidentiality. We do not discuss visitors’ concerns or issues with others, unless given permission.
  • Neutrality. We do not take sides in a dispute.
  • Informality. We do not keep records of our conversations with visitors, and we do not carry out formal investigations.
  • Independence. The Ombuds Office is not bound by established reporting procedures and administrative hierarchies. We have the freedom to raise issues throughout the University.

During the past academic year, 163 individuals from across the University consulted our office. This represents an increase of 5.8% in comparison with the academic year 2016-2017. Visitors to the Ombuds Office represented all parts of the University community, with the highest proportions being staff (39.9%), followed by faculty (30.0%), graduate and professional students (17.2%), and undergraduate students (9.2%). See Table 1.  Most come as individuals, although an increasing number of groups of people have visited during the past two years to talk about common problems and their proposed resolutions.

Table 1: Visitors by Affiliation 2017-2018

Graduate/Professional 17%28
Undergraduate 9%15
Post-Doctorates 2%3
Other 2%3

The issues brought to us are highly varied, although many concerns recur every year. Faculty raise questions about contract renewals, promotions and denials of tenure, largely challenging the fairness of procedures. Staff generally are concerned about a lack of clarity in job expectations and duties which leads to questions about their performance reviews. Graduate students sometimes have problems with leaves of absence or with advisors. While we do not report the substance of individual cases, we classify complaints in broad groups, using the same system every year for comparability. Most issues brought to us concern matters relating to employment (42%) or academic issues (21%). See Table 2. Table 3 gives more detailed information on the issues raised, listing categories, their definitions and the numbers of complaints.

Table 2: Visitors by Issues Raised 2017-2018

Academic Related21%35
Employment Related42%68

During the past two years, visitors have raised more complex issues, and we welcome the opportunity to assist individuals and groups in their efforts to clarify problems. We are glad for the growing awareness of services offered by the Ombuds Office. Several departments have raised concerns with us about disputes and issues relating to working relationships between colleagues within the department. We have offered to mediate or to facilitate conversations among the individuals concerned or within an entire unit. These group conversations have proven to be a valuable way to explore responses to common challenges.

For the past several years, the most common complaint brought to us arises from resentments over what is seen as bullying and unfair treatment. Visitors describe intimidation, abusive language and disrespectful behavior, as well as the unwillingness of others to engage in dialogue about an issue. Visitors report their perceptions of biases and micro-aggressions. While some visitors question the substance of a decision or policy, most often they complain about the manner in which it was communicated or applied. The fear of retaliation hinders many from raising these concerns directly with a supervisor or with colleagues. There is a need for greater civility within offices, labs and other units, as well as greater clarity about rules and procedures. Higher standards for respectful behavior and courteous communication should be set for the well-being of our community. There is now a website where individuals can report incidents of bias and harassment. Additionally, the Office of Audit, Compliance and Privacy maintains both a website and the 215-P-Comply hotline for the registering of concerns. During the past two years, after the University designation of the Ombuds Office as a confidential resource in matters involving sexual harassment and sexual violence, we have seen a clear increase in the number of cases relating to these issues. More and more individuals have come to the Ombuds Office to explore their options and seek information about the consequences of particular choices before they decide what to do. As federal, state and local guidance shifts, understanding current policies and laws becomes ever more important. Since we are a confidential resource, visitors can discuss their concerns without worrying that they will be discussed with others without their permission.

Graduate and professional students have raised multiple problems linked to their academic programs and relationships with faculty and departmental administrators. We have been able to help them prioritize their issues and to facilitate intradepartmental conversations on substantive questions. In many cases, resolution of disputes has been made more difficult because of the lack of comprehensive, written procedures. Even if such documents have been created, they can be out-of-date and not publicized adequately. We welcome the initiative of the Vice Provost for Education whose Office has just published Advising & Mentoring PhD Students, which lays out the roles and responsibilities of faculty and graduate students. While departments and schools should still have specific written policies covering graduate and professional education, this guidance provides general standards and expectations for reference throughout the University. We encourage everyone involved in graduate and professional education, especially all graduate and professional students and members of the faculty to read and circulate it within their units.

The University of Pennsylvania has a stated policy of providing access and equal educational opportunities to all students, including students with disabilities. For a reasonable accommodation to be provided, however, students must identify themselves to the Office of Student Disability Services and provide appropriate documentation. Too often, we see students who have not requested an accommodation in a timely fashion and who only come forward after experiencing an academic setback. We also have heard expressions of concern about a perceived lack of transparency and the length of time the process of reviewing and deciding upon accommodation requests can take. The Office of the Vice Provost for University Life is aware of these issues, and we look forward to continuing conversations about this concern as part of Penn’s commitment to health and wellness across the campus.   

We are sometimes asked about what services the Ombuds Office offers, so starting in November 2017, we refined the categories for tracking the types of assistance that we provide. We start by listening respectfully to visitors concerns and by allowing them to articulate frustrations and fears. As Table 4 shows, we regularly help individuals explore their options, identify their priorities and understand the different channels that exist to help them resolve their complaints. We locate and explain relevant Penn policies and procedures. After a visit, we often make additional inquiries to collect information and then relay that information back to our visitors. Frequently, we coach individuals on how to handle difficult conversations. While we do not serve as advocates, we help individuals as they seek to resolve problems. Marcia Martínez-Helfman, the associate ombuds, is a trained mediator, and we offer both shuttle diplomacy and informal mediation among the involved parties. The Ombuds Office often serves as the beginning point of an inquiry, and we regularly refer visitors to other offices and resources, both at Penn and off-campus. Contacting the ombuds is often the first step in a process that becomes more focused as an individual chooses which path to pursue.

The Ombuds Office advocates for fairness and consistency across the University. 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. When we see a pattern of problematic actions, we raise it with University administrators. Although we do not have the authority to set Penn policies or to change specific decisions, we have the duty to bring concerns to the attention of the appropriate authority, and we regularly do so.

The Ombuds Office is located in 113 Duhring Wing adjoining the Fisher Fine Arts Library in the center of campus. We can be reached by phone at (215) 898-8261 or at www.upenn.edu/ombuds between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday and by appointment. Please contact the Office or consult our website for more information. We respond to inquiries quickly, and we urge anyone experiencing difficulties with any aspect of their life in the Penn community to schedule an appointment with us.