December 30, 2022

2022 Year in Review: The Big Trends

And now, the conclusion of the Ombuds year in review for 2022...

Three important trends emerged this year and all are interrelated. Most significantly, the way Ombuds deliver their services has changed permanently as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: virtual meetings with visitors are now the norm. The rise of hybrid Ombuds practice has allowed more organizations to create part-time and interim positions, and to consider applicants from farther distances. At the same time, the market for practitioners has tightened considerably along with the general labor market and reputable organizations are having a hard time finding candidates. The tighter labor market is, perhaps, one reason that organizations are assigning their Ombuds incompatible collateral duties in diversity, equity and inclusion and Title IX.

COVID Revolutionized the Way Ombuds Work

Before the pandemic, only a few Ombuds provided services by phone or video. These were limited to a few multi-national companies and UN-affiliated organizations whose Ombuds served geographically dispersed stakeholders. By and large, Organizational Ombuds did their work face to face in small, quiet offices. The pandemic revolutionized the practice. About three years ago, this model was completely disrupted as Ombuds were forced to do their work virtually. Even now, those who have returned to work continue to offer appointments by phone and video. Many Ombuds report that their visitors prefer virtual meetings, which offer greater flexibility and privacy, compared to in-person meetings. The embrace of virtual Ombudswork seems to be permanent.

The new mode of working virtually has encouraged many organizations to hire Ombuds with flexible work arrangements. In the past year, at least 23 job postings have indicated the position was "hybrid" or "remote." The new Ombuds model is accelerating the recent trend of non-profit associations creating Ombuds programs to address misbehavior among members and conference attendees. In addition, many of the professional associations and industry organizations that have hired conference Ombuds in the past few years are also providing Ombuds services virtually. Hybrid Ombuds services may lead to the long-anticipated and financial viability of outsourced providers like MWI and Bravely.

Nonetheless, the Ombuds Labor Market Tightened

A decade ago, job postings for entry- and mid-level Ombuds could yield a hundred applicants or more. The job market has changed considerably in the past year or so. Now, there is much lower unemployment in the U.S. and there are many more Ombuds programs and job opportunities. As a result, there are fewer applicants and organizations are taking longer to fill positions. This includes: Halliburton (search open since July); Pomona College (open since July); School of the Art Institute of Chicago (open since July); Colorado College (open since June); University of the Pacific (open since May); Florida Gulf Coast University (open since April); Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind (search open since March); University of Cape Town (open since February); Claremont Graduate University (open since January); University of Pennsylvania (filled after 10 months); and University of Oklahoma (filled after 15-month); Baylor College of Medicine (filled after two searches); and Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine (filled after two searches).

The Rise of "Chimera" Ombuds is Troubling and Unsustainable

In recent years, there has been a troubling and persistent trend: Ombuds are taking on compliance duties related to Title IX and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Granted, there is significant overlap in the knowledge, skills, and abilities in these roles, and the overall number of these professional roles is growing. It must be tempting, therefore, for organizations to combine these roles into a single position. For example:
  • In 2020, the West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond, California, appointed its first Ombudsperson, with the role being filled by the district's Director of Educational Equity and Title IX;
  • Seattle University assigned the Ombuds title to its Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion in 2021. The role was redefined and posted in 2022, but now reports directly to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion;
  • The University of Kansas tapped its Ombuds to serve as the Interim Vice Provost for the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging in 2021;
  • The University of the Pacific has an open search for a Senior Director of Community, Culture & Belonging/Ombuds which reports to the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion;
  • This year, the University of West Florida appointed a Student Ombuds and gave the position to the Associate Vice President for Academic Engagement and Student Affairs, which includes oversight of the Offices of Equity and Inclusion, Title IX, Equal Opportunity, Diversity Programs;
  • The Florida Institute of Technology combined the roles of its Ombuds and the acting Title IX Coordinator;
  • Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, delegated its Ombuds duties to the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and
  • Most recently, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation opened a search for its first DEI Coordinator/Organizational Ombuds.
In the short run, these combined positions are expedient: the organizations seem to be responding to the needs of their stakeholders by offering a wider range of services. However, the IOA standards of confidentiality, independence, informality, and impartiality are irreconcilable with the inherent duties for Title IX and DEI officers. In the long run, these chimera Ombuds are doomed to fail. Visitors are likely to mistrust the confidentiality of a person touted as the Ombuds who has a concurrent and conflicting duty to investigate any and all complaints. Eventually, the organizations may find out that the courts will not allow the fictional compartmentalization of roles in a single employee. Perhaps the Journal of IOA's forthcoming special issue, "The Ombud’s Office and Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Belonging" will offer some insights.

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  1. Until IOA accredits ombuds'offices and withholds accreditation from institutions who place ombuds under inappropriate supervision, this slide away from independence will accelerate. Just like AAUP, IOA should also have the courage to sanction institutions that do not treat their ombuds office appropriately. Better to have fewer REAL ombuds offices than to see thos trend continue.

    1. Ellen Miller1/10/2023 3:08 PM

      IOA currently has a special accreditation task force looking at what program accreditation may look like. But sanctioning organizations like AAUP would involve a huge commitment of resources and a much larger staff to support the work. We are not quite there yet as an organization.

  2. Accreditation would be great-- if IOA could get institutions to see it as value-added vs something to be ignored or treated as irrelevant. We would need a "flagship" organization or three to gain accreditation and promote it as valuable. Otherwise, most institutions will see IOA sanctions for SOP violations as toothless. Unlike AAUP, we as ombuds don't have the "stick" of shared governance obligations that faculty members of AAUP do.

  3. I would just like to share my appreciation for this format of the Ombuds Blog Year in Review. This bird's eye perspective is helpful and interesting. HUGE thanks to Tom for the longstanding comprehensive reporting of Ombuds happenings, all free to the public.

    1. Ditto @Caroline and thanks for all you do, Tom Kosakowski!

  4. Kristine Paranica1/05/2023 12:55 PM

    Thanks for the year in review - interesting perspective.

  5. Tom, I appreciate all you do here in identifying trends across the profession and sparking interest among ombuds. My hope in commenting here is to provide helpful input in support of this resource.
    Regarding the trends identified in this blog post, there is a need to raise a misperception in your listing above in regards to the University of Kansas. The University of Kansas did not combine two roles into a single position. The then-university ombuds (Dr. Graham) became interim VP for DEIB and I became the interim university ombuds. Each Office had its own director and separate reporting lines. You correctly described the position changes in the previously shared press release on the blog. In August of this year, I became the permanent university ombuds, also shared on this blog, and we completed updates to our charter, (available on our site, in November.
    Please know that I would be happy to chat further to fill you in about any of the above if that’s of interest. Again, we appreciate the work you do for ombuds and the profession via this blog. It is an important source of information. Warmly, Ada Emmett, University Ombuds, University of Kansas

    1. Ada: I appreciate the clarification. I apologize for the misperception. I encourage people to click through to the earlier posts.

    2. Thanks, Tom. We appreciate it.