The Office of the Ombuds provides assistance in resolving problems and conflicts. It is an independent, impartial, informal and confidential resource for all faculty members on the Danforth Campus with appointments.
Established in September 2010 by Provost Edward S. Macias and fully authorized by Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, the ombuds office first was recommended by the Advisory Committee on Women Faculty in January 2009. Whether staffed by faculty members serving part-time or by one or more full-time ombuds, the office operates in accordance with accepted professional standards.
The mission of the office is to provide a confidential place for faculty members to voice concerns, develop options and consider ways to solve problems. The ombuds also provides information to Washington University in St. Louis officials, including the Faculty Senate Council, on general trends and patterns of complaints to prevent such problems from escalating or recurring.
Through its mission, the office helps further the university’s strategic objectives within a culture that is ethical and civil and in which differences can be resolved and mutual understanding created through respectful dialogue and fair process. In addition, the creation of the office furthers the university’s commitment to diversity by providing an outlet for concerns that might not be voiced in other settings and by facilitating the collection of general information about patterns of complaints.
The ombuds performs a variety of functions in carrying out the office’s duties and responsibilities, including:
- Listening and providing a respectful, “safe” and independent place within the university for individuals (“visitors”) to discuss problems
- Helping visitors to clarify concerns and develop options, explaining university policies and procedures, providing referrals to other offices
- Coaching visitors on how to help themselves, looking into problems by gathering data and the perspectives of others, engaging in shuttle diplomacy
- Conducting structured mediations or facilitating conversations
- Exploring or pursuing other measures consistent with the mission of the office
After meeting with the ombuds, some visitors may give permission to take an action that would reveal their identity. Others, however, may request that the ombuds not disclose information or take any action that might risk having their identity revealed. Except in very limited circumstances presenting an imminent risk of serious harm, the ombuds will disclose identifiable information or concerns raised only with the permission of the visitor to the office.
The ombuds may take any number of steps towards responsibly addressing concerns raised; however, the office is empowered to provide informal assistance only. Formal actions are the purview of other officers.
Principles of Practice
In addition to being informed by the International Ombudsman Association Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice, the Office of the Ombuds at Washington University follows four fundamental principles:
- Strict confidentiality is essential to the ombuds function and helps create a safe place for visitors to voice concerns, evaluate issues and identify options.
- The ombuds does not disclose the identity of visitors to the office or the content of conversations unless permission has been given to do so.
- If a visitor has given permission to do so, the ombuds may disclose information to other offices or individuals whose help is necessary to explore or resolve a problem.
- Even with the permission of the visitor, the ombuds will neither disclose documents nor testify, attend or participate in formal proceedings.
- A visitor’s confidential disclosure to the ombuds is strictly off-the-record and does not constitute a formal report of wrongdoing. Thus, conversations with the ombuds do not constitute notice to the university of any claims a visitor may have; any concerns about the university’s compliance with laws, regulations or policies; or any questionable practices at the university. Moreover, such conversations do not suspend or extend any time limits by which notice of claims must be provided to the university.
- The university will make every effort to protect the confidentiality of the office. The university will not ask the ombuds to testify on the university’s behalf in internal or external proceedings, and it will take appropriate steps to protect the ombuds from subpoena by others.
- The only exceptions to confidentiality arise when there appears to be an imminent risk of serious physical harm or when a court orders disclosure of information despite the university’s efforts to maintain the confidentiality of communications with the ombuds office.
- The office functions outside existing administrative structures and reports directly to the provost of Washington University only for administrative and budgetary purposes.
- The ombuds neither compels other offices to take specific action nor receives compulsory orders about how to approach a particular issue.
- The office complements but does not duplicate existing grievance procedures and compliance channels such as Human Resources, the Advisory Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom, the Sexual Harassment Response Coordinators, the Washington University Police, the Washington University chapter of the American Association of University Professors or the Research Integrity Officer.
- The ombuds has no authority to establish, change or set aside any university rule or policy nor may the ombuds override the decisions of university officials.
- The ombuds has access to all university officials and records as needed to carry out the functions of the office.
- The ombuds takes all steps to avoid conflicts of interest, whether actual or perceived.
- The ombuds seeks to provide objective assessments of concerns brought to the ombuds office.
- Maintaining a neutral position, the ombuds is an advocate for equity, fair process and the fair administration of process. The ombuds does not, however, take sides on behalf of any individual, cause or dispute.
- The ombuds takes into consideration the rights of all parties, as well as the welfare of the university and university community.
- The ombuds provides informal, off-the-record assistance only.
- The ombuds maintains only anonymous, aggregate data. The office does not create formal records, nor does it preserve personally identifiable documents. Informal notes may be temporarily created only insofar as they are necessary for case management.
- The ombuds has no authority to accept legal notice or make decisions on behalf of the university. For those wishing to go on record, the ombuds makes referrals to appropriate formal channels so that visitors may make informed choices about which process is best for them to pursue.
- The ombuds may request data from and explore a concern with university officials; however, the ombuds does not conduct formal investigations or participate in formal actions. The following are also outside the purview of the office:
- Adjudicating cases
- Acting as an advocate or witness in any case inside or outside the university
- Keeping case records for the university
- Assessing wrongdoing or innocence
- Determining sanctions
- Making, changing, or setting aside any rule, policy or administrative decision