January 06, 2021

Task Force Recommends Ombuds for Mercyhurst University

A working group at the Catholic liberal arts college in Erie, Pennsylvania says the campus should implement an Ombuds. The working group's report was written in preparation for an accreditation review by by the Middle States Commission for Higher Education. The group endorsed an Ombuds that follows IOA standards and serves faculty, staff, and students. 

Here's the relevant portion of the report:
This working group could not find any specific form that is to be used when a student, faculty, or staff member submits a grievance. There is no formal procedure or timeframe outlined for grievances. There is no way to track whether grievances are addressed appropriately and in a fair and timely manner. It is recommended that grievances become more streamlined with formal documentation and procedures.

Standard II workgroup has found it necessary to address the need for an ombudsperson position at Mercyhurst University. The review of ethics and integrity has led to a discussion on oversight and direction during conflict resolution and identifying issues of concern that have not surfaced by other means. The International Ombudsman Association (IOA) describes the role of the ombudsperson as “akin to a conflict coach, helping all parties define the problem, understand each other's concerns, and explore options that may resolve or manage the dispute." The current system of conflict resolution is lacking in the IOA’s four ethical standards of practice, which are independence, confidentiality, impartiality, and informality. At Mercyhurst, grievances are often enough received by peers and people in power, which in certain circumstances may lead employees to feel uncomfortable about coming forward, especially if they are in lower-level positions or are seeking to move through a promotion system. The University, no doubt, has good intentions in assisting in conflict resolution; but it should always strive to make improvements and to create an environment that respects the concerns of all its members. Establishing an ombudsperson office could provide numerous benefits, such as enabling the University to manage better workplace related conflict, prevent poor behavior, motivate ethical behavior, and effectively deal with concerns. At the same time, the ombudsperson could aid in providing clarity and direction to policies, processes, and practices that already exist at the University. Too often, people and institutions find themselves reacting to conflicts rather than proactively cultivating a safe place for employees to voice their concerns. Ideally, an ombudsperson would be someone sufficiently knowledgeable of the university’s policies and processes to welcome grievances without fear of negative repercussions or judgement. 
Mercyhurst administrators have not responded to the recommendation. (Mercyhurst Standard II Working Group Report 3.)

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