Vox of Dartmouth asked Mary Childers to answer some questions about the role of the College's Ombuds Office, and to share her views on what she hopes to achieve in her new post. Childers was appointed ombudsperson in February 2007, the first person to hold the position at Dartmouth since the administration of former President John G. Kemeny.
VOX: What is an ombudsperson and what do you hope you can accomplish in this role?
MC: Ombuds Offices give people a chance to explore a wide range of problems by talking them through confidentially with someone who's neutral and independent. My role as Dartmouth's ombudsperson is to be a resource where non-faculty staff members can work towards resolving conflicts in an environment of civility and mutual respect. The word "ombudsman" derives from an 18th-century Swedish term describing a government officer whose role is to hear citizens' complaints in a neutral and independent setting, but the concept of ombudspersons dates back to ancient China.
VOX: How do you maintain your independence from the administration? You report to the President and need to be aware of College policies. How do you create and maintain boundaries?
MC: I report to the President on trends, not specifics and have confidence that he and others will respect the independence of the Ombuds Office. Independence doesn't mean an ombudsperson is a free agent, though. There are many restrictions on the activities I can engage in. For example, the ombudsperson doesn't write policies, advocate for or organize against them. What I can do is help individuals and, on the institutional level, point out and question the repercussions of events that employees bring to my attention, without breaching their confidentiality.
VOX: Where is the Ombuds Office?
MC: My office is in room 206 in the Church of Christ at Dartmouth on College Street—more commonly known as the White Church. I know that some employees have qualms about coming to the office because of their religious affiliations and feelings. I want everyone to know that I'll accommodate them by meeting elsewhere if need be. At the same time, I think this location bolsters my office's independence because it's not in an administrative building, yet is centrally located so that most hourly staff can pop in during lunch hour if that's what's most helpful to them. I also know that the Church of Christ is very inclusive and respectful of the boundaries between the church and the rental space.
VOX: Why does Dartmouth need an ombudsperson?
MC: The creation of the Ombuds Office was recommended by the Administrative Working Group on Hiring and Retention. That group was one of three committees established by President Wright to examine how Dartmouth could improve internal communication, recruit and retain talented administrators, and align the budgeting cycles more closely with the College's strategic planning process. According to the hiring and retention group's report, the Ombuds Office would "serve both managers and other staff members. It would operate outside the formal grievance procedures, in some instances simply offering advice and information, in others facilitating a resolution of the matter at hand and offering mediation when necessary."
VOX: How does it feel to be the person that people come to with all of their problems?
MC: I personally find it gratifying to help people solve their own problems when it's possible for them to do so. I'm also fascinated by how people change their definitions of issues and arrive at creative solutions themselves through the process of being listened to and questioned in a nonjudgmental way.
VOX: Explain how the Ombuds Office at Dartmouth maintains the confidentiality of those seeking consultation.
MC: First of all, not everyone wants confidentiality, but one of the primary purposes of the office is to give people a place to go where they are not putting the College on notice of an issue. I have no obligation to report what I hear unless there is an imminent physical threat, evidence of a discrimination issue, or a subpoena, which would be highly unusual. I keep notes only as long as I am working with someone. When their issue is resolved or referred elsewhere or enters a grievance process, I will shred notes.
Ombuds officers do not participate as witnesses or adjudicators in campus grievance procedures precisely because people need to feel free to explore their intentions, strategies, and fears separately from processes that involve creating records, judging evidence, and potentially recommending discipline.
VOX: If your consultations are confidential, then how do you account for the office's activity in any given period of time? Don't you have to submit reports?
MC: Quite rightly, the College wants to assess the effectiveness and contribution of the office. I will report on numbers and types of concerns and trends, while making sure that identities are not revealed.
VOX: Do you have a list of questions that employees can ask themselves that could guide them in knowing whether a consultation with you would be helpful?
MC: I'm just now working on materials and will be posting helpful advice on the Ombuds Office Web site, once it is launched. The launch will be announced online and in Vox of Dartmouth.
VOX: What special qualities do you bring to this role? What do you want people to know about you personally that might help them as they consider whether or not to seek your advice?
MC: I've served as Dartmouth's director of equal opportunity and affirmative action, and as associate dean of arts and sciences and senior advisor to the provost at Brandeis University, where I focused on academic personnel. I've resolved disputes and offered training on over 15 campuses. This extensive experience combined with my genuine personal interest in helping people, makes me, I hope, a real resource for Dartmouth managers and staff. I think I also apply my skills as a teacher of writing when I help people clarify their thinking, understand policies, and cultivate strategies that are effective in professional environments.
VOX: In any workplace, there are bound to be disputes and character conflicts. Sometimes people just don't get along. Is it the role of Dartmouth's Ombuds Office to deal with those situations?
MC: My role is to deal with situations people bring to me by helping them resolve them or referring them elsewhere. Sometimes resolution is about trying to change a relationship; sometimes it's about accepting differences by coming to understand them better and gaining distance from conflicts that are unlikely to disappear. I certainly don't want to give people unrealistic expectations of utopian conviviality in the workplace. At the same time, I know it often helps to talk things through in a neutral and confidential environment.
VOX: How should employees view the ombudsperson? Are you the person of last resort or should they touch base with you as soon as there are questions or concerns?
MC: Most employee issues are addressed with supervisors and in the Office of Human Resources. But when people would rather seek advice and informal coaching elsewhere, they can come to me with an issue, preferably before it escalates. I'm a first and last resort, and an option at any point in someone's efforts to break through bureaucratic entanglements, sort through ethical questions about office practices, communicate with a co-worker or supervisor, or improve any other aspect of their working lives at Dartmouth.
VOX: Have you ever been in a situation where you've consulted with an ombudsperson or someone in a similar role? Was it helpful?
MC: I've been in situations where I would have benefited from such a confidential, neutral conversation but where the option wasn't available. I'm glad it exists at Dartmouth now. It's a great privilege to be providing this service to my fellow employees.
By LAUREL STAVIS
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Last Updated: 12/17/08