August 23, 2009

Leaked Document Reveals Work of College Ombuds

Over the past academic year, a senior administrator at Grinnell College has been questioned about personnel practices which have lead to allegations of management issues and faculty-administration tensions. (Scarlet & Black.) WikiLeaks has posted a confidential analysis of Grinnell's hiring and firing practices and how the situation was handled by the president. (WikiLeaks.)

Written by an anonymous Grinnell faculty member in about December 2008, the leaked document reveals a covert investigation that found similar problems during the administrator's prior appointment at Lewis & Clark College. Fortunately, Lewis & Clark had an Ombuds who was able to assist, much to the relief of the administration at Lewis & C
lark. According the the leaked document:
The Need for an Ombudsperson

In her written statement, the retired director also notes, "After [the administrator] left, the division required counseling and intervention with an organizational rescuer. We needed this. It amazes me what one person can do in 18 months." A high level administrator at L&C, with whom Ralph spoke, and who is willing to speak to our trustees privately, confirms this account. The college's ombudsperson (at L&C the ombudsperson is a totally independent conflict-resolution agent) interviewed every member of the ... division at the new dean's request and then did periodic follow-ups. The administrator reported that the "entire division was a basket case. Valerie [the ombudsperson] was needed to heal us. (Full text pdf, p. 4.)

Of course, but for the leaked document, the work of the Lewis & Clark Ombuds would have remained secret and known only to a few. The Grinnell faculty has apparently realized the value of an Ombuds and has created a Faculty Governance Group to look into the creation of a Ombuds office for the campus. (Grinnell Faculty Meeting Minutes, 4/6/09.)

Related post: Lewis & Clark College Launches Ombuds Office.

Correction 8/26/09: The original version of this post mistakenly indicated that mistakenly asserted that the administrator had left Grinnell College. In fact, the administrator still serves in that position. I apologize for the error.  

Update 3/30/10: The post was amended to remove details identifying Grinnell's senior administrator.  One comment that lead to the correction on 8/26/09 was also removed.  These details were peripheral to the issue of the Ombuds role in the underlying matter.


  1. This is a great example that I plan to discuss with members on my campus. (1) Healing, often, needs to occur in the aftermath of such a leader--how could it not?. (2) Healing is needed in the aftermath of workplace bullying and, especially, mobbing. (3) Healing for those who remain in the workplace is also needed when restructuring has occurred and one's colleagues have been terminated. (4) Healing is probably needed for those who remain in the workplace following any major change or negative incident--such as in the aftermath of a sexual harassment charge and investigation.

    When the "bad egg" has been fired or leaves...or when target(s) of bad behavior leave--the anger, grief, uncertainty and fear of those who remain continue unless specifically addressed. And it can continue for does continue that way for many. The target of the anger moves, for example, from the bullying manager or coworker, to the organization for letting it go on for so long. For not listening to employees and protecting them.

    So without an active move on the part of the organization to address the feelings and help those remaining to heal, the negative feelings are directed at the organization (yes, the one who finally fired the bully), and those feelings can continue to grow...snowball even, with future disappointments. "See, there they go again...they aren't interested in us."

    As OO, I think we can help a great deal in this area. We can, at the very least, help those in leadership (at whatever level) to see the need and encourage them to address it directly with their staff as a whole or with individuals. Some training might be needed--and certainly privacy must be maintained where necessary.

    There will be information that the OO cannot disclose either, but that certainly does not mean all of our work has to be done in secret, does it? I don't name departments I work with (not without their permission)--though sometimes they do--but I make it known that I am available to work with departments that need the services I can provide--like facilitating discussions, meetings, decision-making. My provost has recommended me to departments that need such assistance. We don't "hide" those sorts of meetings; in some work I'm doing right now, most of the people in that building know I'm there to meet with that department. It's become normalized for that group, and thankfully, it's helping them. Well, most of them tell me it is helping. It's become normalized enough in that building (a single college), that the running joke is I'll need an office of my own in the building.

    (5) The final reason I am going to share this example on my campus is that while what goes on in conversations with visitors is confidential, some of the work I do (and I do work that is not just "listening to complaints" ) should be public. On such large scale kinds of issues, can't the OO presence be clearly known?

    A caveat: I am not talking about presence known in an investigation, in termination process, hearings, or anything formal related to personnel practices. But in the aftermath of such events and in the healing of those who need it most.

    I'm interested in what others think. Please respond on the blog or to me directly.

    Have a great day!

    Kerry Egdorf, Ombuds
    Marquette University

  2. This is a tough one, because I'm the "Valerie" in the text of this blog item. While it might feel good on some level to be spoken of as someone who might help in a situation such as this, there's a really hard part. As an OO--or in this case, THE OO--I bend over backwards to keep all aspects of the process and participants confidential. And yet, people will talk about imagined work and real work I do on behalf of individuals and groups. An OO can play a crucial role in an organization but I think the work is more effective when the particulars aren't known across the entire body.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Valerie. You raise two significant points. Most significantly, our desire for institutional acknowledgment is hampered by our duty of confidentiality. News of our work is therefore left to others, who may or may not be accurate or complete. Fortunately, you seem to have garnered high praise in this case. Secondarily, you point out the value of how the OO is perceived ("imagined work"), especially when the particulars are not widely known. I agree that this is a source of significant power for the office.

  4. Kerri-
    I think most Ombuds have had experience helping an organization heal from a perceived bully. And that's not something I anticipated coming in to this field. I am also intrigued by your question (If an Ombuds' involvement in a large issue is already widely known, can the Ombuds publicly acknowledge that?). I hope others are encouraged to respond.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. One more thing...I've now had a couple of calls from other ombuds, asking whether any of my ombuds documents were leaked or discovered. It was an impression they had based on the item's header. I don't take or keep any notes, so it was nothing of mine. The leaked document was created at Grinnell.

  7. Excellent points by both Tom and Valerie. And thank you, Valerie, as the person involved for commenting. It sounds like you've done really good things there in a very challenging situation.

    Let me say that by making something "public" I'm not looking for public praise or recognition as an individual. But we market what we do on our campuses/in our organizations. I don't name departments I have worked with in my marketing materials or what the particulars are, but I do tell employees and leadership when I talk about the role that I am available for facilitating various kinds of meetings within a department or college, for instance, for problem solving and decision making. Or when a new team is being created and they want training on group process. Or in providing training that is geared specifically to the needs of a department or group that, for instance, is having trouble dealing with conflict or dealing with change.

    Valerie raises a good point regarding process and individual participant confidentiality. And to her point about "imagined work." There are aspects of process in working with groups and individuals (generally, not in the specific) that are generic enough to say "the ombuds is available for xxx-type of work." And I want my leadership to support publicly the services of the office and what an OO can do.

    RE: my example in my first post about working with a specific department: they are not hiding my participation in providing them with the process help they need. They chose to meet in a conference room in their building, with glass doors. I'm not sharing the specific content of discussions outside the group, nor do I share with the group if I meet individually with group members. I've been working with this group for several months, and will continue to for a few more. In this example, and in others, deans have attended meetings where I have been the process facilitator. I think we can make the distinction between confidentiality of individual identity (which is lost in a group) and content and the process--how an OO might work with individuals and groups. Knowledge and understanding of process can take a lot of the uncertainty out of dealing with problems.

    It was the OO as a resource for helping the organization to heal, and the recognition by that university that healing does need to occur, that prompted my initial post. It is a good use of the OO.

    Kerry Egdorf
    (who can't figure out how to get "anonymous" off the header!)