December 05, 2011

AP Report Maligns University of Iowa Ombuds Office (Editorial)

A December 4 story by the Associated Press repeats a complaint by a local attorney that the UI Office of the Ombudsperson is “failing” to resolve bullying complaints.

The article puts this disparaging and misleading spin on the work of the UI Ombuds:

The Office of the Ombudsperson resolved 8 of 63 bullying complaints brought to its attention by students, faculty and staff between January 2010 and Oct. 5, 2011 and improved the situation in two others, according to data released to an Iowa City lawyer and shared with The Associated Press. The office failed to resolve 13 complaints, and the outcome was listed as "unknown," "unclear" or blank in most of the rest, according to the data, which the university released only after being threatened with a lawsuit.

The data highlights an office whose operations have largely been done in secret since its creation in 1985 and appears to undercut its claims that most employees are satisfied with the service they receive. The office is supposed to serve as "a confidential, neutral and independent dispute resolution service" for the school's 15,000 faculty and staff, according to the university operations manual, but has no authority to order changes if voluntary agreements can't be reached.
The AP article was prompted by Andrew J. Hosmanek, an Iowa City attorney who filed a public records request seeking data from the UI Ombuds Office. When the university resisted, explaining that the Ombuds’ promise of confidentiality was crucial to its operations, Hosmanek threatened legal action. The university relented and Hosmanek focused on the small minority of cases that involved bullying allegations.

Hosmanek said that that, “Bullying victims should be aware that, according to this data, bringing a case directly to the ombuds office is very unlikely to end in a positive result.” Although, he conceded that “The ombuds office at UI has a long and successful history of resolving conflicts.”

UI Staff Ombudsperson Cynthia Joyce declined comment and referred questions to a university spokesperson.

The AP story omits a few critical facts:
  • The UI Office of the Ombudsperson practices to IOA standards which require it to be confidential, independent, informal and neutral. These ethical tenets preclude Ombuds from having even the capacity to resolve complaints of bullying unilaterally.  Moreover, the UI Office of the Ombudsperson has never been charged with the responsibility for resolving complaints of bullying. Therefore, to assert that the office has “failed” is plainly incorrect.
  • The UI Office of the Ombudsperson has been a bellwether on issue of campus bullying and incivility. In every annual report since 2007, Cynthia Joyce has called attention to the need for administrators to address bullying and incivility, and she has worked to educating the campus community about the characteristics of and solutions to workplace bullying. In 2008, the university implemented a civility code for faculty in response to issues surfaced by the Ombuds.
  • The article also neglects to mention Andrew J. Hosmanek’s extensive ties to the University of Iowa. He earned his BBA, JD, and MBA from UI and is a PhD candidate. He also has served as an Adjunct Assistant Professor.  The relevance of his significant personal history was unexplored.
All of this additional information was readily available to the reporter, but would have painted a more complicated story. The AP story was picked up and reprinted by many local newspapers and Fox News affiliates.  It has tainted the good work of a diligent, ethical, and professional university program.  (Chicago Tribune; LinkedIn; UI Office of the Ombudsperson: 2005-2010 Strategic Plan.)


  1. Dear Mr. Kosakowski,
    Thank you for helping to bring this article more attention. While you have correctly listed my credentials, it is important to note that I undertook my research as an attorney, based on my experience with the office in my law practice, rather than through any academic connection with the university. If you wish to learn more about the untenable bullying situation at the University of Iowa, please contact me directly. You have my contact information.

    Best regards,
    Andrew J. Hosmanek

  2. While I am unfamiliar with the specifics of bullying at the University of Iowa, I have experience at three other universities. Bullies generally develop over time and depend on submissive subordinate and disinterested supervisors. Change is impossible unless administrators are willing to investigate and implement corrective action. Bullying usually cannot be resolved through a mediation between the aggressor and target. Bound by confidentiality and limited by the target's fear, an Ombuds often has no ability to act or even advise leadership about a specific bully. Only if a target waives confidentiality or there are multiple targets can an Ombuds surface an allegation of bullying. Then, a remedy may take weeks or months. Meanwhile, an Ombuds many be closing individual cases of bullying as unresolved. The benefits of an effective Ombuds program are better tracked on an institutional scale.

  3. AP News Flash: Smoke detectors are failing to extinguish house fires.