This article was published on Dec. 28, 2015.
While the campus ombuds office closed almost six years ago, the chancellor has plans to re-start small by creating a position that will assist campus members with where to go when they have a question or a problem.
“In my view, that’s the sort of basic thing that we have to have now,” Chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman said. “We can start becoming more elaborate in the future. But what we really need now is that … and it’s not just students who need this, I should say. I mean everybody needs this. Again, my long experience as a dean, just all the time someone would come to you with a problem and even the dean wouldn’t know exactly where you’re supposed to go.”
According to Neal Milner, who headed the ombuds office when it was open from 2006 to 2009, the office’s job was to help people solve their problems and concerns in a confidential manner.
“What it meant was that we would do anything from ‘where can I find this place,’ kind of like navigating, which is pretty routine, all the way to faculty members in a conflict, departments having trouble,” he said.
Bley-Vroman hopes to have someone to function in this new role within a month, though he would be disappointed if it didn’t happen by the end of the school year.
The old office
Milner helped set up the old office and said there was always a need for it.
“Let’s put it this way, you don’t have to do a needs assessment at this university to figure out you need it,” he said. “Any conflicts organization benefits from one. This is, this place is just bizarre enough and anarchistic enough in an organizational sense to know that you need it.”
The old office, located in Krauss Hall, was composed of three ombudsmen and a secretary, and according to previous Ka Leo articles, handled hundreds of cases each year. It followed the ethics and practices of the International Ombuds Association, and some of its work would include mediation as part of conflict resolution and informal investigations.
“So to us the book had many chapters, and mediation was maybe one chapter and we spent a lot of time on that. So that, it sounds drier than it is because it’s a real adventure, you never know what the hell’s going to happen,” Milner said.
The office closed in 2009 from budget cuts. Milner estimates the office had an annual budget around $200,000, with most of it paying for salaries.
A beta ombuds office
It’s important for an ombuds office to report to a high level, such as the chancellor, and be relatively independent, Bley-Vroman said. One function of the office would include reports on campus trends.
“So an ombuds office can tell the chancellor like ‘I’ve been getting a lot of people asking about X,’ and that will let me know that there’s something, there may be a general problem that we need to solve,” he said. “It’s sort of my eyes and ears.”
His plan is to start with the navigator function and build the office out from the recommendations he or she could provide. Right now, he’s looking for someone that has knowledge of university systems, a client-service orientation and knowledge of ombuds offices. The location of the office would need to be convenient and relatively discrete.
Milner said an information giver function is valuable on the Mānoa campus, though one difficulty with starting with this sole position is that it’s only a small part of the work that needs to be done.
“But assuming that’s better than nothing, the problem is that often what starts off as a request for information gets more complicated,” he said.
Milner estimates the cost for an ombudsman at a large university ombuds office would make over $100,000 a year, though the chancellor did not know the exact cost for a navigator position.
A place to listen
Mānoa Faculty Senate Chairman Robert Clooney had testified in support of last session’s House Bill (HB) 96, which would have appropriated funds to establish and operate an ombuds office on campus. The bill has been carried over to the 2016 session. He views such an office as a place one could go and confidentially get advice without fear of retaliation.
“I mean sometimes people feel oppressed but in reality, maybe there’s nothing that can be done for them and so you’re better off finding that out up front and what your options are or what the consequences may be,” Clooney said.
Both the UH Student Caucus (UHSC) and campus Graduate Student Organization (GSO) have passed resolutions asking for the establishment of full ombuds offices on the each of campuses. UHSC’s resolution also gave the option of a system coordinated office.
“If you just do the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil concept, just because there is no office and no place to go, doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist. You’re just not listening. And so I think that’s a concern,” said Ed Hoogland, a GSO history representative.