March 12, 2012

Update: Alumnus Criticizes Yale's Refusal to Create an Ombuds Office

In a letter to the editor of the Yale Alumni Magazine, Jim Hostetler (Class of 1955), says that University President Richard Levin failed to adopt the single most important recommendation from the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate.

In November 2011, that committee endorsed the creation of an Ombuds as one of several steps to address sexual harassment, violence and other misconduct on campus. Although Levin agreed to implement several recommendations, he said that Yale would not create an Ombuds.  Hostetler, is an advocate for Organizational Ombuds, says that this was a mistake.
The Title IX complaint
Your article covering the report of the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate is an important contribution to understanding changes that are needed (“Yale, Alumni Committee Respond to Title IX Complaint,” January/February). What the article fails to mention is that President Levin and the university deferred action on the single most important recommendation in the report, that the university “explore the possibility of establishing an office of organizational ombudsman, one that will be integrated into Yale’s conflict management system.” 
President Levin in his response to the report indicated that he would expand the Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Education Center (SHARE), which would be available to offer assistance confidentially or anonymously. He would, however, defer any further action on the critically important informal function provided by the organizational ombudsman, an independent, neutral, and confidential resource for anyone needing to raise an issue of concern. The benefits of such an office go far beyond the narrow issue of dealing with sexual harassment. 
Virtually all the leading universities have adopted this function as a best practice. Implementing such a resource at Yale is long overdue, and the advisory committee presented a strong foundation for action. The failure to move promptly to establish an organizational ombudsman is a disappointing footnote to the good work that is under way at Yale to deal more effectively with sensitive matters affecting the well-being of students, faculty, and the university community as a whole. 


  1. Students, faculty, and staff at institutions with an organizational ombudsman (OO) can certainly attest to the incredible value it brings. Let us remember that the core standards of the International Ombudsman Association include confidentiality, independence, neutrality, and informality. The latter is the most relevant and will be discussed momentarily. One related benefit of an OO includes bringing to light behaviors that are counterproductive and unprofessional. In that regard, an OO can help stop bad behavior and prevent it from becoming more severe and pervasive. I am keenly sensitive of the need for anonymous mechanisms to report wrongdoing. However, let us not forget that sexual assault is a crime. An informal, off-the-record venue like the OO couldn’t be the worst venue for these types of claims. It is true that victims need an anonymous venue. However, there must be a formal, on-the-record investigation that produces a factual record. A formal investigative report is necessary to prove or disprove the allegations, but more importantly, hold individuals accountable for their actions in substantiated claims. An organizational ombudsman that operates according to internationally-recognized standards does not produce formal investigative reports. Yale should reconsider and indeed implement an OO for the value it brings as a whole, but not for the sole purpose of reviewing sexual harassment and assault claims.

  2. I see a good number of visitors with sexual harassment concerns come through my office. Typically, the visitors are anxious about the Title IX process, and are debating whether to visit the Title IX office. Often they wonder whether they have an obligation to report. By providing a confidential environment where an Ombuds can listen attentively to their concerns, acknowledge their anxiety, and clarify policy, my OO can help visitors gain a sense of agency over the process. Consequently, on the whole, visitors are more likely to choose to visit the Title IX office after visiting my office.
    I agree that in accordance with the IOA standards the OO should not serve as an office of notice, and that sexual harassment concerns represent a small minority of cases that come through the office. Nonetheless, I do believe that the presence of an OO helps strengthen an organization's ability to address sexual harassment, because of (not in spite of) the informal, confidential nature of the office. Additionally, there have even been several occaisions where, in the course of listening to a visitor, I have identified a Title IX concern that would have otherwise gone unaddressed, buried in the midst of other issues.
    As an Ombuds and a Yale alum I am disappointed that Yale has not implemented an OO. Yes, it should implement it for the broader value it brings. But I am particularly disappointed that it has not done so in light of the recent sexual harassment scandal. In my experience often the reason people do not come forward has more to do with their anxieties and concerns about the process and not simply because they do not know where to report. An OO, implemented in accordance with IOA standards, that is informal, confidential, and is not an office of notice, would help address this piece of the the sexual harassment puzzle at Yale.