May 16, 2018

University System of Maryland Strips Ombuds of Most Confidentiality

Yesterday, the twelve institutions that comprise Maryland's public university system, were notified that its Ombuds programs cannot keep confidential any matter that may fall under Title IX or the Clery Act. A memo to the USM Presidents said that any Ombuds proram must follow guidelines recently approved and adopted by USM administrators and the State Attorney General. In addition to mandatory reporting of gender discrimination, crimes, and safety issues, University Ombuds now are required to notify visitors of the limits of confidentiality and maintain a record of that disclosure in their files.  

While many of the new guidelines are within IOA standards, there are two sections that are clearly incompatible [emphasis added]:
4. The Ombuds Office shall preserve confidentiality of communications with the Ombuds Office, except as otherwise required by law or policy or as specified in these guidelines. If, in the course of its operations, the Ombuds Office becomes aware of information for which disclosure is required by law or policy, then the Ombuds Office shall timely comply with law or policy to provide such disclosure. The Ombuds Office shall immediately report all allegations, reports and communications which potentially involve Title IX matters to the institution’s Title IX Coordinator or which potentially would require Clery Act reporting to the institution official charged with Clery Act reporting. Additionally, the Ombuds Office shall disclose information to the institution, law enforcement, and other appropriate authorities to address an imminent risk of serious harm.
5. The Ombuds Office will include a prominent, easily understood statement on all electronic or written documents, with respect to the limits on confidentiality set forth in #4 above. For electronic documents, this shall include a “click-through” page wherein the user agrees that he or she has read and agrees to the limits on confidentiality. In a situation involving an oral disclosure, the Ombuds Office shall ensure that it provides this information to the person providing the disclosure, and shall document such communication in writing and maintain this in the Ombuds Office files.
There are no more details yet regarding the implementation of the new guidelines. (USM Memo re Ombuds.)

Updated 5/16/18 at 2:40 pm, PDT:

There is no indication why USM decided to impose these new guidelines, which will have a significant impact on the existing USM Ombuds, which have all advertised their confidentiality:

  • The University of Maryland Ombuds -- "Communications with an Ombuds are confidential and no information or opinion presented to an Ombuds will be passed on to other parties without the express permission of the complainant. Even the fact that the Ombuds has been contacted will not be revealed without authorization."
  • The UM Graduate School Ombuds -- "What makes the Ombuds Office unique?Confidentiality. The Office is firmly committed to maintaining the confidentiality of those who use our services The Ombudsperson will not identify you or pass on your confidences to anyone without your permission, except when there appears to be imminent threat of serious harm."
  • The UM Baltimore Office of the Ombuds -- "The ombudsperson holds all communications with those seeking assistance in strict confidence and does not disclose confidential communications unless given permission to do so. The only exception to this privilege of confidentiality is where there appears to be imminent risk of serious harm."
  • The UM University College Ombuds -- "The ombudsperson holds all communications with those seeking assistance in the strictest confidence allowed by law. The identity of visitors and the substance of concerns raised are not shared without consent. The only exception to maintaining confidentiality occurs in cases where there appears to be imminent risk of serious harm or a threat or possibility of harm to a child or elderly individual and no other reasonable option exists."
To be complete, it bears noting that confidentiality is not assured by the UM Undergraduate Students Ombuds Office, which practices to just three ethical standards: informal, impartial, and independent.

Related posts: University of Maryland University College Unveils Ombuds OfficeVideo Introduces University of Maryland Ombuds for Grad StudentsJob Posting: University of Maryland, BaltimoreUniversity of Maryland School of Dentistry Appoints First Ombuds; Faculty Seek Ombuds Programs Across University System of Maryland.


  1. The limited "good" news is that all USM institutions are directed to establish ombuds offices, as I understand it. Small comfort, though, if they have to essentially warn a large swathe of visitors away and maintain records now.

  2. To recap: no one can visit the UM ombuds anonymously and the ombuds have an affirmative duty to report potential sexual misconduct or safety concerns. Might as well shut down all the ombuds offices.
    -Angry Ombuds

    1. Without confidentiality, they effectively did shut down their Ombuds offices. They are now Title IX Offices.

  3. Is there any discussion as to not calling these office Ombuds Offices if they don't follow the Standards of Practice?

    1. I think there should be a discussion about this!

    2. I agree that "Ombuds" will no longer be the proper title for these practitioners; perhaps "Counselor" would be more accurate. Title IX addresses gender discrimination in general, not only sexual violence or harassment, so to comply accurately perhaps 50% of all visitors to Ombuds offices in a University environment would fall under the reporting requirement.

  4. The study on federal Ombuds recommended to Congress that if Ombuds programs do not adhere to the common set of standards and characteristics they should not use the term ombudsman. “Existing offices with the ombuds title that do not adhere to these standards should consider modifying their title, where permitted, to avoid any confusion.“ See recommendation 1a, page 6 at the following link:

    Scott Deyo, M.S.
    Certified Organizational Ombudsman Practitioner
    Deyo Ombuds Solutions, LLC

  5. I agree with the other ombuds who have commented that removing confidentiality is a very difficult issue. Confidentiality is often the reason why people feel able to make a complaint to an ombuds office. This does not take into account the imbalance of power which is present in virtually every sexual harassment or bullying complaint. The victim often very reluctant to make the complaint because of fear of the offender. Of course, some are strong enough to be identified as a complainant, but in my experience that would be rare

    Chris LaHatte

  6. Can the IOA Board please, please respond to this and contact UMD officially??
    Also, this decision means we still need more efforts from IOA on Title IX.

  7. And while your at it, you can also draft one for the NRO whose Ombuds also runs the grievance program, does investigations and creates formal reports.

    Angry but not the Angry Ombuds

  8. What exactly do people think IOA can do about this? IOA does not have any influence over these organizations! Except, perhaps, to suggest that since these offices are no longer compatible with best practices and standards..... stop calling them Ombuds Offices.

    1. IOA *could* do a lot. It could educate leaders in organizations about the necesaary qualities an Ombudsman Program needs to have to be successful and ethical. It could conract leaders when they run astray from SOPs with arguments about why this is a BAD idea. It could lobby so we become an actual, licensed profession.
      Instead it does nothing but blow hot air at its own members.

  9. IOA is a toothless organization with little to no ability to influence top-level decision-makers in organizations that have or should have Ombuds programs. We spend our time defining our roles and standards in a way that purposely excludes Ombuds with all necessary knowledge from being "certified" just because their organizations' leadership has dictated that they practice in a way that mandates Clery and Title IX disosure.

    While we debate whether a given office is orthodox enough we fail to conduct effective and aggressive outreach to the very top-level executives who could mandate the creation of Ombuds offices with the snap of a finger.

    It is time to grow the pie, not to keep fighting over whether a particular piece of the pie is in fact lue, or whether it is strudel, or something else.

    It is well past time to stop looking at IOA in the mirror and seeing an important collosus: it is a tiny orca fixation that does too much navel gazing and too little outreach.

    The guy at the Richmond meeting who caused a bit of consternation for yhr Boars was right. Action, action, action iz what is needed.