What’s the point of an ombudsman?
Yet another complaints office
Student dean Jos Karssies doesn’t see the point. Not another office for people to go to for help or complaints, he sighs. ‘It feels like a further fragmentation of the services we offer. But anyway’, he continues, ‘I didn’t take an in-depth look at it.’
‘I felt the same way in the beginning’, says organisational advisor Jacomijn Wolters. She has to make preparations for the ombudsman, who will be starting at the UG on July 1.
There are already a confusing number of services where people can go if they have a complaint about their boss, colleague, or teacher. Nevertheless, they’re adding another one. An ombudsman. Independent and not part of the university organisation. It’s been ordered by the ministry of Education.
But is it really necessary? The university already has a confidential advisor, staff social workers, diversity officers, union representative, an arbitration committee, student deans, student psychologists, the Central Portal for the Legal Protection of Student Rights, and the Complaints Committee on Sexual Harassment, Aggression, Violence, and Discrimination.
It feels like a further fragmentation of the services we already offer
And these are just the services the UG website points you to. There are also four staff members who serve as confidential advisors to PhD students. There are HR advisors to turn to, as well as study advisors, directors, coordinators, Graduate Schools, safety officers, and your own supervisor. And, just to add to the confusion, there are also confidential advisors for academic integrity, as well as a corresponding committee.
Does this mean the new job is a waste of money?
The ombudsman at the University of Twente, who started eighteen months ago, costs 44,000 euros for twenty hours a week. A study by Tilburg University showed that a work conflict costs universities approximately 51,000 euros. That means that if the new ombudsman can prevent a single conflict from escalating, they’ve already paid for themselves.
Besides, Marjolein Renker, the current UG confidential advisor, could use a little help, as she wrote in her 2019 annual report. In a year’s time, Renker handled 171 cases on sensitive issues, all on her own.
Her 2019 report also showed that the number of cases rose by nearly 50 percent over the course of two years. This is because of the increased awareness of unwanted behaviour at the UG, due to the MeToo movement from 2017. An UKrant investigation into sexually transgressive behaviour among students showed that something was definitely going on. 39 percent of the respondents said they’d experienced it. Of those students, 44 percent had experienced threats, stalking, or rape.
An investigation by the Federation of Dutch Trade Unions among university staff showed that more than 40 percent had experienced unsafe working conditions. The complaints mainly detailed cases of abuse of power, but also bullying and sexual abuse.
Lighten the load
The university took action to increase people’s awareness of the confidential advisor. They placed a large blue button on the intranet, referring people to the website for the confidential advisor. This helped: more people came forward to report issues, mainly conflicts they had with their boss. But the person tasked with handling the increase in complaints did not get more hours.
There are cases I feel should be explored more
Renker currently works 32 hours a week and has sixteen hours of administrative support. Starting April 1, she’ll temporarily have someone working eight hours to help her out, but there’s no certainty that position will become permanent. The addition of an ombudsman might just light Renker’s load, the university thinks.
Han Warmelink, the first ombudsman at the University of Twente and a former professor of law at Groningen, thinks they might be right. The confidential advisor at Twente has seen a decrease in reports, he says. On the other hand: ‘More people have been coming to me.’
That does mean that the ombudsman position fills a need, he says. However, the twenty hours that he works wouldn’t be enough at the UG, since that university is much bigger than Twente. Nevertheless, the board of directors is proposing spending only half an FTE on the position. It would come with sixteen hours of administrative support, which Warmelink doesn’t have.
Warmelink started at Twente as part of a national pilot. Ombudsmen at Maastricht, Rotterdam, and Delft started at the same time. The new positions were created in response to #MeToo and other, similar issues at universities, says Wolters. ‘Someone would report unwanted behaviour leading to another person’s dismissal, only for everyone to say they’d known about it all along.’
The pilot was aimed at finding out whether the ombudsmen contributed to ‘a safer work and study environment, either by handling complaints and questions from students and staff or by referring these people to the proper services’.
‘Surely the confidential advisor can take care of that?’ Karssies wonders. He does the exact same thing for students in his job as student dean.
Sure, says Renker, but not in all cases. ‘I sometimes get so desperate to do more. There are cases I feel should be explored more.’ What she means is that a neutral party should be involved. She’s only there to support whoever reports the issue, and not necessarily to solve it. She’d like to, but it’s not always feasible.
An example: Various PhD candidates have come to Renker to complain about the same professor. The situation is precarious. She’s concerned and has told the faculty board about the issue, but the board is prioritising other things right now. She’s sure they have their reasons, ‘but in the meantime, nothing is happening’.
This would be a perfect job for an ombudsman. ‘They’d be able to start an investigation independent of the university. They would also be able to get into more detail.’ An ombudsman would be independent, able to initiate things on their own, not beholden to any particular party, and could respond to certain trends.
An ombudsman would be able to investigate cases independent of the university
Warmelink has another example: ‘There were ten separate reports of the bad atmosphere at a particular faculty. Just sticking it in a file wouldn’t do much.’ But Warmelink took it to the university’s board of directors, who then talked to the faculty board, preventing the issue from escalating.
In cases like the one involving Diederik Stapel, who faked his research for years and was ultimately reported by PhD candidates, an ombudsman might lower the threshold for PhD candidates to come forward, Wolters thinks.
But, says Warmelink, he’s never actually had to investigate any cases. A good talk is usually sufficient. ‘Most people know why I’m contacting them. I’ll ask them why they haven’t done anything about it. That’s usually more than enough to resolve the issue.’ He likes to refer to himself as ‘a greaser of wheels’.
Quartermaster Wolters is now tasked with finding that greaser for the UG. Based on the pilot, the collective agreement now states that each university should have an ombudsman on the books by July 1. ‘It won’t be easy’, she says. ‘Someone like that must be particularly sure of themselves, since they’ll have to address the behaviour of professors and deans.’ The university council and the union still have to agree on the position.
Before the position can be advertised, the board of directors and the university council have some decisions to make still. About the costs, for instance: the board is proposing to spend 300,000 euros over the course of two years, with an annual investigative budget of 35,000 euros. Who would supervise the ombudsman? Would they get a contract at the UG, or will they work as a freelancer, like the board is proposing? Will students be allowed to turn to the greaser of wheels with their issues?
Once all parties agree, the UG will once again have an ombudsman after the summer. That’s right: again. The position that now bears the title of confidential advisor, used to be called ombudsman at the university. ‘It’s true’, says Renker, laughing. ‘We still have the sign in the hallway.’