At the behest of Pomona College President David Oxtoby, the President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity (PACD) has reopened discussion on the possibility of hiring an ombudsperson, a neutral go-between who relays information about the interests of employees or constituents to their organization or institution.
Considerations to instate an ombudsperson position first took place during the 2006-2007 school year, though no candidate was hired to fill the position as a result of that effort. On Feb. 1, three forums were held by the PACD to educate the Pomona community on the role of an ombudsperson and to gain feedback from the community on how an ombudsperson could fit into the Pomona community. The forums were led by members of the PACD with a presentation from Tom Kosakowski, Claremont Graduate University’s first University Ombuds.
In the 2006-2007 school year, PACD polled students, faculty, and staff to determine what diversity issues were most pressing on campus. Associate Dean of Students for Student Development Daren Mooko, who sits on PACD, said it became clear that staff members’ biggest complaint was that there was no structural vehicle for staff to air complaints or grievances.
Staff members are all paid employees of the college that do not have faculty status and include executive staff, administrative staff, and service staff. When PACD examined staff demographics, Mooko said, the committee found that the executive staff contained a lower percentage of people of color than any other group on campus, including faculty, students, or other staff. They also found that over 90 percent of administrative assistants were women, and well over 80 percent of service staff were people of color.
“In terms of numbers, the staff are probably our most diverse constituency group at the college and they have the least amount of access to talking to people about their work conditions,” Mooko said. “We felt like, as a diversity committee, we just couldn’t ignore that.”
Mooko said that, in the 2006-2007 conversation, many of the staff expressed concerns about fundamental workplace issues that they felt were not being addressed. As a result of this feedback, PACD decided to look into hiring an ombudsperson.
Kosakowski defined an organizational ombudsperson as “a designated neutral who provides conflict resolution and problem-solving services to internal or external stakeholders of an organization. In addition, an organizational ombuds provides upward feedback to the organization about systemic and organizational issues to the leadership.”
Kosakowski added that an organizational ombudsperson should have four essential characteristics under the International Ombudsman Association Code of Ethics: confidentiality, neutrality, independence and informality.
“Basically the ombuds can hear and become involved in things, and then keep that involvement and information and communication confidential, which allows them to work with a lot of people and give people a comfort level to work with them,” Kosakowski said.
Though Pomona found a candidate for the ombudsperson position in the 2008-2009 academic year, the search did not end in a successful hire. According to a statement by the PACD, “One of the reasons the search was not successful is that there were different understandings among community members/groups as to the role of an ombudsperson.”
According to Mooko, the February forums showed that the staff were very much in favor of hiring an ombudsperson.
“When faculty and students have complaints, they have all these structures in place for them. So when they are asked about the ombudsperson, they’re like, ‘That doesn’t really affect my life,’” Mooko said. “So, we really focus it on the staff because there’s not that over-arching vehicle for the staff.”
According to Pomona’s Director of Institutional Research Jennifer Rachford, who has served on PACD since 2005, Pomona currently has a grievance policy for staff to lodge serious grievances regarding violations to policy. According to the Pomona Staff Handbook, the grievance policy is an “internal channel for correcting practices that violate policy and therefore undermine the fostering of positive working relationships.” Pomona also has an open door policy, which encourages staff to voice their concerns to their supervisors or other members of the administration.
Though she sees both these avenues as beneficial to staff, Rachford sees an ombudsperson as an additional resource to bridge the gap between the grievance policy and the open door policy for members of the community who are unsure where to bring their concerns.
According to Mooko, the consideration for an ombudsperson is separate from the decision by the dining hall workers to pursue unionization. He said that unions serve an altogether different function than an ombudsperson.
“If, by some chance, dining hall workers became unionized, I think we would still need to have an ombudsperson on campus because the ombudsperson isn’t going to argue or negotiate on anyone’s behalf,” Mooko said. “They’re there as a resource to employees, to say, ‘Here’s the best way to approach this, here are some different strategies on approaching your supervisor. You have this conflict, here are different ways you can resolve it, here’s this person you can go to,’” Mooko said.
Mooko said any candidate that Pomona considers as ombudsperson would have to be bilingual in English and Spanish, given the large number of Spanish-speaking employees within the staff.
According to Nicole Weekes, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Pomona and spring semester chair of the PACD, the committee is still processing the data received at the forums and continuing discussions “until we have met consensus on the nature of the recommendation we would like to make to the President.”
Mooko added that President Oxtoby has been supportive of bringing an ombudsperson to campus. Still, Mooko said that even if PACD decides to recommend to Oxtoby that Pomona hire an ombudsperson, he does not know how long the hiring process will take.