Settling differences

Ombuds committee can help faculty resolve perceived barriers to their advancement

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



William Oldham, chairman of the Ombuds Committee

17 January 2001 | Barriers to faculty advancement come in many forms: disputes over teaching loads, outside business activities, authorship of publications, salaries, or availability of laboratories and research funds to further an individual's career.

The Academic Senate offers several resources to assist faculty in the resolution of these conflicts. The first step involves Berkeley's Ombuds Committee, a group of five faculty members, designed to hear complaints and help identify options for resolution with all parties involved in the disagreement.

The role of the faculty ombudsperson, like that of the student and staff ombudspersons, is to serve as a neutral facilitator, conciliator and/or mediator in problem-solving and conflict resolution, said William Oldham, chairman of the Ombuds Committee. Complaints are heard in a confidential and informal manner.

The word itself, "ombudsman," has Swedish origins and was first used as a public office in Sweden. According to one scholar, the term refers to "a person who has an ear to the people." In American colleges and universities, the office is often referred to as an "agent for justice" within the complex institutional systems of higher education.

"Our job is to be neutral mediators and good listeners in hearing complaints," said Oldham, an engineering professor in the electricial engineering and computer science department who has served on the committee for three years. "I'm not a witness or an arbitrator in disputes. I'm an impartial listener, someone who is familiar with the campus and can help obtain information about university policies and procedures governing academic advancement."

Oldham believes that the academic environment affords faculty the greatest latitude in settling their differences with higher-ups, whether they be department heads, deans or vice chancellors. "Academics are bright, articulate, reasonable people, first of all. They're also good people and interested in doing the right thing in resolving the conflicts they might be facing."

Often, Oldham finds that initial meetings face-to-face with an upset individual can work miracles.

"The most important part of the first meeting with someone is to get that person to identify the problem or perceived barrier," he said, "then get him or her to tell me what solution they seek. Often the proposed solutions are modest and the individual goes off and takes that action to solve the problem."

George Cooper, a civil engineer in the material sciences and mineral engineering department with one-and-a-half years of committee membership, agrees.

"Most people are reasonable and will back off and look for a reasonable middle ground once they've identified the conflict," Cooper said. "The ombuds is really the catalyst for removing the emotional elements of a conflict and clearing the log jam blocking resolution."

The number of cases handled by the Faculty Ombuds Office varies each year, but is relatively low and has dropped in recent years. In his 1998-1999 report of committee activities to the Academic Senate, Oldham recorded approximately a dozen inquires, one-third of which were placed by non-Senate academics.

In all but one of these cases, the callers were redirected to the Staff Ombuds Office because they were non-Senate academic employees, such as librarians, post-doctoral faculty and researchers and non-tenure-ranked lecturers, Oldham said. By contrast, the Staff Ombuds Office handles about 300-350 new complaints a year, primarily because it serves a larger pool of employees.

"In the cases we handled, we were rather successful at getting close enough to a solution to the problem posed that all parties could end the dispute and get on with their primary duties of teaching, research and service," Oldham reported in his memo to the Academic Senate. "We have been helped significantly by the cooperation of people at all levels of the administration, as well as by the general good will of faculty and staff."

The most common complaints revolve around faculty who report a lack of teaching support or laboratory facilities, equipment or funding to conduct the research they require to publish and scale the ranks.

"In some of these cases, one or more simple discussions with the concerned faculty member constituted our total interaction," Oldham said. "Either the faculty member felt they could handle the problem from there or left convinced that we could not be helpful." More serious complaints pitted faculty members against their departmental chairmen or deans. In those instances, Oldham said a brief phone call or a three-way meeting to establish better interpersonal communication was sufficient to resolve the case.

"In only a few cases were we called in far too late to undo prior actions," he reported, "and very protracted discussions may or may not have resolved the issues in dispute."

Another vehicle for conflict resolution is use of the university's panel of counselors. If an informal resolution does not seem likely, counselors are available to advise faculty on other ways of remedying problems, Oldham said. The panel of counselors is knowledgeable on faculty rights and privilege and can offer advice on preparing and managing cases that may be brought before the Committee on Privilege and Tenure.

One case in last year's report was expected to become a formal grievance and taken up before the Committee on Privilege and Tenure.

That committee, made up of five Academic Senate faculty members, provides the most formal level of conflict resolution, Oldham said. The committee hears complaints regarding various matters of academic privilege, appointment, tenure and promotion. Although most cases do not progress this far, the process can be initiated by submitting a complaint in writing to the chair of the committee.

"I wanted to serve on the Faculty Ombuds Committee because, as a former Academic Senate chair, I got involved in some faculty privilege cases, and I saw a need to stop them before they got that far," Oldham said. "In most instances, the situation has an acceptable solution if enough attention is paid to working out the differences. Unfortunately, by the time a complaint has been submitted to the Committee on Privilege and Tenure, most of the damage to the individual has already taken place."


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Copyright 2001, The Regents of the University of California.
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