Hoping to resolve faculty disputes before they escalate into embarrassing legal battles, Ohio State will soon appoint an ombudsman who will try to persuade feuding faculty to settle their arguments quickly and quietly.
The Board of Trustees approved the position at its Oct. 29 meeting at the urging of the University Senate. An ombudsman is a mediator.
The person will not be able to impose any settlements.
Richard Gunther, a political science professor and former chairman of the Faculty Council, proposed the position to fill what he sees as a gap in the current dispute settlement process. He said faculty who take disagreements to the offices of Academic or Legal Affairs, or Human Resources, are resorting to the “nuclear option.”
Current Faculty Chair Tim Gerber, a music professor, agreed.
“I know of bitter personality battles in a half a dozen departments where faculty members are acting like children,” he said. “Where faculty are acting with the most churlish, childish behavior, that if made public, not only would those faculty members be embarrassed but the university would be embarrassed.”
Gerber acknowledged that an ombudsman will not be able to
successfully resolve every disagreement.
“I’m no Pollyanna about this. Sometimes you find disagreements escalating into enmity and hostility and then maybe lawsuits,” Gerber said. “We’re not assuming that this can nip some of these in the bud, but it does provide a resource for people to bring their complaints about disagreements among faculty.”
Two faculty disputes have disrupted the College of Social Work and the College of Pharmacy. Faculty at both colleges are suing the university and the cases have been going on for years. Gerber said the acrimony at the College of Social Work is troubling.
“In that particular case, there were issues of race and homophobia,” he said. “I mean frankly, some of these people need to be in counseling. They don’t need an ombudsman, they need a psychiatrist.”
Though that case is particularly egregious, OSU is plagued with similar but lower-profile faculty fights.
“No department or college has a monopoly on faculty disagreement,” Gerber said. “But when people become contentious and that escalates into mean and ugly and nasty, then all of a sudden we become unproductive. We don’t have the kind of collegial cooperative tone that we need to have to be productive. But it was not motivated by some tsunami of bad behavior.”
Gerber said the search for the ombudsman will be completed in the next six weeks so that the person will be in place for Winter Quarter.
OSU President E. Gordon Gee will appoint the faculty member based on the search committee’s recommendation. The person will serve a one-year term.
“Many universities have these kinds of positions,” Gee said. “This is a big, complex university and sometimes things can be easily resolved and that’s the purpose of an ombudsperson.”
In addition to serving as a mediator of early-stage complaints and directing faculty toward the appropriate offices and committees, the ombudsman also will present an annual report on his or her activities.
The ombudsman will discuss the work through faculty Web pages, speaking engagements at faculty orientation and at meetings of the University Senate and Faculty Council.
The ombudsman will get either a small pay raise or a reduced teaching load as compensation.
“It’s not a full-time job,” Gee said.
The job will go to a senior member of the regular faculty or an emeritus faculty member.
“It takes just the right person,” Gerber said. “We’ve got several dozen people who could bring that kind of expertise to the position, people who have earned the respect of their peers.”