February 24, 2009

Review Board Knocks GWU Med School for Deficient Ombuds Program

When the Liaison Committee on Medical Education put George Washington University's School of Medicine on probation last fall, the university downplayed concerns, citing superficial and easily remedied problems. Now the Washington Post has obtained confidential documents that reveal the deficiencies were considerably more serious. According to the accrediting agency, the problems “seriously compromised the quality of the medical education program” at GWU. Among other problems, “Accreditors noted a potential conflict at GWU because the ombudsman who handled student complaints also led the committee that evaluated students.” Although further details were not available, the Ombuds program has yet to be revised. (Washington Post; GW Hatchet; GWU 2004 Resident Manual.)

While the Washington Post does not reveal other details about the GWU Ombuds program, the conflict of interest is a critical defect. Organizational and Classical Ombuds both share the common characteristics of independence, impartiality and confidentiality. The American Bar Association observed that:
The ombuds’ structural independence is the foundation upon which the ombuds’ impartiality is built. If the ombuds is independent from line management and does not have administrative or other obligations or functions, the ombuds can act in an impartial manner. [¶] Acting in an impartial manner, as a threshold matter, means that the ombuds is free from initial bias and conflicts of interest in conducting inquiries and investigations. (ABA Revised Standards for the Establishment and Operation of Ombuds Offices.)

Obviously, the GWU Ombuds program was not practicing in conformity with IOA, USOA or any other recognizable standard for Ombuds. Having administrative oversight of the student complaint process was a clear conflict with the Ombuds’ other responsibilities. For the accrediting agency, this failure to follow established programmatic norms was cause for concern. This particular case is significant for the Ombuds profession because it marks the first time a university has been cited for a deficient Ombuds program. The lesson for universities is that their Ombuds programs should reflect existing standards.


  1. The ABA Ombudsman Standards should not be the model or authority for the profession or establishment of functions. It is acknowledged that there is a legal framework of compliance within the broader organization, such as a university or corporation, but the ABA model in itself is "conflicted" and it positions the ABA as "the ultimate authority" over all others subjecting the ombuds function to litigation.

  2. There is no other recent and authoritative analysis and comparison of the different kinds of ombuds practice. As soon as there is, I'll gladly reference it instead.