Ombudsperson position will remain vacant

by Sunny Drescher | 5/1/18 2:30am

College President Phil Hanlon has decided to leave Dartmouth’s ombudsperson position vacant, following a recommendation from an internal search committee. An ombudsperson serves as a confidential resource for the College’s non-unionized employees to seek help regarding workplace issues or potential rights violations.

The previous ombudsperson, Sean Nolon, left the position vacant in July 2017 when he returned to teaching at Vermont Law School.

Executive vice president and search committee member Rick Mills said that the committee initially came together to find a candidate to fill the position, but noticed that several peer institutions were no longer maintaining their ombudsperson positions. Instead, other offices and services were meeting the demand.

Mills served on the internal search committee alongside chief human resources officer Scot Bemis, vice president for institutional diversity and equity Evelynn Ellis, chief of staff for the Office of the President Laura Hercod, general counsel Sandhya Iyer and executive director of the president’s office Marion Simpson.

Hercod said that the committee struggled to find a candidate who would be a good fit for the College and considered what offices at the College might be equipped to take over some of the duties previously held by the ombudsperson. By the time the committee started thinking about leaving the position vacant, Mills said it had already been unoccupied for months, and the committee had heard no complaints related to the vacancy.

According to Mills, the disaggregation of resources from one individual to several offices gives faculty and staff a wider range of confidential and private options. These include the Title IX coordinator, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, the human resources office and the faculty/employee assistance program, he said.

Interim Title IX coordinator and Clery Act compliance officer Kristi Clemens said that support services at the College are working towards “building a network” of resources.

She added that she does not anticipate that the role of the Title IX office will change drastically as a result of the decision to leave the ombudsperson position vacant.

Mills said the increased presence and perceived legitimacy of the Title IX office and other resources — both confidential and private — contributed to the recommendation to leave the position vacant.

“I think that providing as many doors for people who have an issue or a problem to go through, which the spread of offices kind of does, is something that [the College] didn’t have when [the ombudsperson] was just one person,” Mills said. “This new model allows folks to find a forum that works for them, for their problem and for their personality.”

Hercod said that a “multidimensional approach” was necessary to tackle issues that arise on campus, adding that this was not specific to the types of issues that an ombudsperson may deal with but was applicable to institutions of higher education more generally.

“You have a bunch of different constituencies, and you have people who have different issues and different needs,” she said. “No one person can possibly solve for all of that.”

Mills said the College’s partnership with ComPsych will also enhance access to behavioral health resources. ComPsych is a firm the College has contracted to help administer employee assistance programs.

Mills said that by contracting out some of the counseling and other services, these services are now accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week; this contrasts with the old model that only provided services during traditional business hours on weekdays.

Hercod said that there would be some challenges in assessing the effectiveness of diffusing the ombudsperson’s duties into several places because it is difficult to discern “how you know you’re doing a good job, particularly with things that are confidential and things where people have different perspectives.”

Mills added that accessibility and use of confidential resources will be hard to measure specifically but that aggregate-level data, such as a high frequency of complaints coming out of a particular academic department, can alert the College to larger issues at play.

“Both with the [decision to leave the ombudsperson position vacant] and with ComPsych, we’re trying it, and we’re going to track how things go,” Mills said. “If it turns out not to work the way we intended, then we need to adjust what we’re doing.”