December 31, 2020

2020 Year in Review: Courage and Crises

In 2020, Ombuds were challenged by the health care crises triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and the growing awareness of systemic racism and inequities. While these two problems were most profound in the U.S., they were certainly felt in other countries as well. On top of these issues, three Ombuds programs were dragged into the spotlight during conflicts within their organizations. 

Profiles in Courage

Neida Perez at the Organization of American States
In September, Neida Perez was just two years into her term as the Ombuds for the Organization of American States when she became the focus of international pressure and media scrutiny. The story began earlier in the year, when Perez notified the OAS Secretary General, Luis Almagro, that she had heard from dozens of OAS stakeholders about favoritism, conflicts of interest, and sexual harassment by Paulo Abrão, the head of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (an autonomous commission of OAS and a prominent human rights watchdog). The Secretary General opened a formal investigation, which confirmed Perez’s upward feedback.
When Almagro vetoed Abrão’s reappointment to the Commission, human rights organizations (including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch) have reacted and accused Perez of conspiring with the Secretary General. Perez told the AP, “I was asked by employees and agreed to give a voice to employees who felt invisible and then shared their testimonies with both Secretary Almagro and the commission.” The Secretary General did not back down and the public outcry was unavailing: Abrão’s appointment ended and Perez is still the Ombuds for OAS.

Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa at the University of Cape Town
In July 2020, Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa, CO-OP, issued her annual report and called attention to the visitors who had complained of bullying by the University's Vice Chancellor, Mamokgethi Phakeng. Phakeng, who had been named the second most powerful position at the large university in 2018, publicly accused the Ombud of acting in bad faith, disregarding the law, and violating her rights. The matter quickly escalated and drew significant press coverage in the legislative capital of South Africa. Administrators, faculty, and student groups took sides.

Makamandela-Mguqulwa told the South Africa Sunday Independent, “As ombud, I was appointed to highlight what was not working. The office is meant to unearth critical issues and I was led to understand that my work would involve scrutinising even the highest at university.” (Makamandela-Mguqulwa hosted IOA training in 2015 and is the Chair of the Regional Advisory Committee for Africa.)

In September, Makamandela-Mguqulwa was suspended by UCT after she refused to withdraw the report. Vice Chancellor Phakeng challenged the Ombud's report in court before withdrawing the lawsuit. Makamandela-Mguqulwa's term as the Ombud ended in December.

Paul Caffera at the University of Mississippi
For more than a year, Ole Miss has been embroiled in conflicts involving allegations of racism, sexism, homophobia, cronyism, cover-ups, and retaliation by administrators and wealthy alumni. (Details have come to light through the relentless investigative reporting of Ashton Pittman at the Mississippi Free Press.) By the summer of 2020 (when the focus was on a Confederate monument), it became apparent that University Ombuds, Paul Caffera, was one of the few campus resources that faculty, staff, and students could trust with their concerns and identities.

Seeking to control the public controversy, university administrators ramped up pressure on Caffera, seeking the identities of visitors who had confided their concerns. The university said it was investigating claims that visitors to the Ombuds Office were creating a hostile work environment on the basis of race and national origin. In November, Caffera retained his own attorney and filed suit for a court order to protect his confidential communications, discovery of the allegations against him, and declaratory relief.

In December, the University of Mississippi put Caffera on administrative leave and named a law school professor as acting University Ombuds. IOA's Executive Director, Chuck Howard, and Board President, Melanie Jagneaux, quickly condemned the university's action and said that Caffera was facing retaliation for upholding professional standards. As the campus closed for winter break, Caffera remained on leave and his case is still pending in Mississippi's local Chancery Court.

Overlapping Crises

The Covid Pandemic and Health Care Crisis
The effects of the coronavirus impacted nearly every aspect of Ombuds' work in 2020. The most obvious effect was on their work with visitors. In the "before times," most Ombuds would meet with people one-on-one, in small private offices, allowing plenty of time for visitors to tell their stories and work through emotions. Video or phone meetings were used by necessity by only a small number of Ombuds. By the end of March 2020, however, all Ombuds were handling all cases by video or phone all of the time. Many visitors had concerns related to the pandemic. It has been a sea change for Ombuds and their visitors, and it is likely that this new arrangement will continue.

Many organizations were financially hammered by the pandemic and this trickled down to Ombuds. Many offices saw their travel, professional development, and hiring budgets frozen. Some offices were shuttered and new programs were delayed. But, by the end of the year, job postings seemed to rebound.
Secondarily, professional Ombuds associations were hit as well. The loss of income from in-person conferences and trainings upset the fragile budgets of IOA, USOA, Cal Caucus, ACCUO, ENOHE, and others. In an attempt to mitigate their losses and meet the needs of their members, associations spent money and time to create new online content and programs. For many Ombuds, professional meetings are an important break from their usual institutional isolation. Whether and how these events resume depends on the effectiveness of vaccination efforts just getting underway.

Black Lives Matter and the Crisis of Systemic Racial Inequity
Whereas the Covid was an unexpected crisis, the BLM rallies capped decades of growing resentment of racial inequities. Covid amplified the problem as people of color and their communities were impacted disproportionately by health and financial problems. Much of the public anger was directed at institutions with Ombuds programs. These Ombuds programs saw an significant increase in cases related to the BLM movement from visitors looking for "safe, accessible, fair, and credible ways to express concerns within their organizations and seek help." The movement was sufficient to prompt some universities without Ombuds to promise of new programs (as several did in prior years).

Ombuds organizations quickly issued statements in support of protesters and calling for fairness and equity. IOA offered sessions for members to talk about the issues. But there are persistent concerns about how racism and privilege affects Ombuds individually—how it affects their status and work within the organizations where they work and also their professional associations. Recent conversations at IOA and Cal Caucus were a wake-up call for members with a blind spot for their own privilege (and this has included me). The dialog was mostly paused by the pandemic, but will certainly continue once in-person events resume.

Updated 1/1/21 to include the summary of Zetu Makamandela-Mguqulwa's story.

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