April 02, 2010

Idaho State University Ombuds Had Role in Controversial No-Confidence Vote

As faculty efforts to unseat the ISU provost became public, it was revealed that the University Ombuds helped count ballots. 

There should be some guidance for Ombuds pulled into these sorts of governance disputes.

In mid March, ISU faculty members presented a petition to force a vote of no-confidence in the university's provost and vice president for academic affairs, Gary A. Olson. Olson, who was hired less than a year ago, provoked the faculty's ire by proposing a restructuring plan that would save up to $1.5 million. When the Idaho State Board of Education began in inquiry, it was revealed that the original petitions had been destroyed after being counted. Phil Cole, VP of the Faculty Senate, explained that the ballots were destroyed to protect the 165 petitioners from retaliation. There is now a controversy over the validity of the petition since the documents are no longer available.

Among other things, the coverage of the controversy has revealed the involvement of the ISU Ombuds. According to the Faculty Senate Chair, Alan C. Frantz, the ISU Ombudsman helped count the first set of ballots. In an editorial, Frantz said
Executive Committee members present and the Ombudsman did not view petitions as public records, even if no obvious exemption were apparent, and concluded that they should be shredded after verification, before a public records request could be filed and hold up the disposal of the petitions.
A second vote was conducted and it is not clear whether the Ombuds was involved again. However, the Faculty Chair said that he advised the Ombuds of the results. The matter is far from being concluded, but it bears noting that the faculty vote of no-confidence is advisory only and the decision on the fate of the ISU Provost ultimately rests with the University President. (The Chronicle of Higher Education Blog; Idaho State Journal article, editorial.)

Although their involvement is not usually this public, University Ombuds are often caught up in faculty governance disputes. As a trusted, confidential and informal resource, Ombuds are often among the first to hear about faculty discontent that may lead to a no-confidence vote. However, because these situations are rare, Ombuds may find themselves struggling to define an appropriate role. For this reason, the International Ombudsman Association should help define best practices for Ombuds during a no-confidence vote.


  1. I agree that IOA needs to set some guidelines. I was almost involved in two no-confidence votes by faculty. However, because I worried about how to maintain my neutrality and informality, I withdrew from the situations. As a result, the ombudsman office lost some credibility among faculty.

  2. The ISU Ombuds was present at the counting of the ballots as required by the bylaws in the Faculty Staff Handbook for Idaho State University.