December 10, 2008

Former Professor Recounts Troubling Encounter with Ombuds

In yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education, a former professor from a "metropolitan university in the South" tells how he was accused of sexual harassment nearly a decade ago. The anonymous author in fact was innocent of the charges–-someone with a remarkably similar email address had sent several messages to his student demanding sex for a higher grade. Although he quickly denied that the emails were his, he was summoned to a meeting with the "university ombudswoman," who confronted him with the evidence and presented an agreement for him to seek psychological help for his behavior. Upon providing a list of dozens of existing email addresses on Hotmail that were similar to his, the suggestion of fault evaporated.

Although the focus of the article was on the false accusation and presumption of guilt, the professor was clearly troubled by how the case was handled by the Ombuds.
The meeting adjourned. The dean, never one for gracious damage control, disappeared. The ombudswoman made some pleasant conversation as I put on my jacket and collected my things. But no one in the room apologized. No one there expressed concern regarding the impact the event might have had on me or my reputation. Their immediate presumption of my guilt was apparently not to be regretted by anyone but me.

The professor concludes his tale with a warning: "Until we devise more-sophisticated approaches for handling this complex problem on campuses, we will continue to see potentially clumsy responses that further complicate an already painful problem." (

This article is no doubt raising the blood pressure of many university Ombuds. The behavior of the unidentified Ombuds clearly violated the prevailing ethical standards of the University and College Ombuds Association and its successor professional organization, the International Ombudsman Association. Under these standards, Ombuds are barred from making administrative decisions for administrators, determining "guilt" or "innocence" of those accused of wrong-doing, or assigning sanctions to individuals. Ombuds have a duty to be neutral, independent, informal and, most especially, confidential.

Of course, the story may not be accurate, but there is no opportunity for the Ombuds to tell her side. The unfortunate effect is that readers will reach a mistaken conclusion about the role of the Ombuds and may avoid working with the rare safe resource for those wrongly accused.

Related post: University of Iowa Endorses Ombuds Office After Faculty Suicide.

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