March 18, 2009

Caltech to Close Historic Ombuds Office

Several weeks ago, the California Institute of Technology announced that it was laying off 100 employees due to economic concerns over its endowment and alumni contributions. (San Gabriel Valley Tribune.) In an email today, the Institute’s Ombuds, Ornah Becker, revealed that her office would be shuttered by the cuts effective April 2.

In 1995 Caltech’s Ombuds, Helen Hasenfeld, was at the center of the historic Garstang case. That decision by the California Appellate Court recognized a qualified privilege for an Organizational Ombuds under the State’s constitutional right of privacy. The case remains a touchstone for Ombuds seeking to protect the confidentiality of communications with visitors. In addition to Hasenfeld, the Caltech Ombuds position was also held by Jan Schonauer, past president of IOA.

There is no indication that the closure is temporary. Moreover, with the demise of the Pepperdine Ombuds program, this marks the second Southern California office to close this year.

Related posts: Congress Shuts Down CDC Ombuds Office; California Decimates Long Term Care Ombuds Program; Ombuds Can Help Minimize Effects of Layoffs; City of Flint Ombuds Shuttered by Budget Cuts; Pepperdine University Ombuds Retiring.


  1. In a down-turning economy there is an increased pressure on entities such as the Ombudsman to be able to show relevance and impact in order to be considered a key part of the organization. As institutional decision makers look at cost reducing measures business units which can't demonstrate that they add to the organizations bottom line become obvious targets for redundancy.

    There is a growing body of knowledge about demonstrating Ombudsman value. Recently, John Zinsser and I taught a two day program on this, which was really well accepted (Thanks to Tom and his blog for informing Ombudsmen about it).

    The unfortunate reality is that there will likely be more Ombudsman offices which will come under executive - cost based review, and be declared redundant; likely they will also have a common trait of not having demonstrated to the organization a value nor support of the bottom line.

  2. The vast preponderance of organizations and institutions make budget decisions on verifiable or perceived "worth" of the element being considered. "Worth" may well be a measure of impact that is not necessarily translated into value which is measured in dollars.

    It has never been more important for ombudsmen to be able to describe and share in a credible manner their "worth" to their institutions. With care and some historical performance, most ombuds programs will be able to generate a clear picture of both worth and value. We have demonstrated ROIs for the function as 20-1. There are almost no institutions, even in these particular economic times, that will end a function that contributes that sort of value, so long as it has some alignment with the mission of the organization.

    It is essential that ombudsmen work diligently to advance their value proposition BEFORE attention falls on them as a possible cost-center.

    John Zinsser
    Pacifica Human Communications, LLC

  3. This is a disaster! Didn't anyone see this coming? There's gotta be more to this story. Helen and Jan were leaders in the field and now the Caltech website looks like it hasn't been updated since they left. Cripes!