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FAQ about Faculty Ombudspersons Services

What is the role of Faculty Ombudspersons?

As stated on the official UTK website, Ombudspersons are distinguished faculty who facilitate informal conflict resolution at the request of faculty members. They provide advice and may serve as informal mediators if the faculty member has not yet initiated an appeal. Their primary role is to support fair practices and mutual respect. The functions of the Ombudspersons are described in, Chapter Five, Section 2, of the newly revised Faculty Handbook. Ombudspersons strive for fairness, understanding by all involved parties, respectful treatment, and resolution of issues prior to a formal appeal process. Faculty Ombudspersons do not make formal or binding recommendations regarding faculty and/or administrative issues. The role of Faculty Ombudspersons is defined in the current Faculty Handbook and is limited to that description. Rather than making formal, binding recommendations, they assist faculty members in exploring issues, gathering information, and determining available options. Rather than conducting formal hearings, they meet with the faculty member and others only upon the request and/or permission of the faculty member. Rather than determining fault, they facilitate an informal resolution of conflicts by those involved. Rather than advocating for faculty members or administrators, they assist those involved in exploring the situation from varying perspectives including questioning assumptions and determining acceptable outcomes.

Who is eligible for receiving services from Faculty Ombudspersons?

Any tenured, tenure-track, or non-tenure-track full- or part-time faculty member who is governed by the Faculty Handbook is eligible for Ombuds services. Undergraduate and graduate students, including graduate teaching assistants, are not eligible for services provided by Faculty Ombudspersons.

What services are provided by Faculty Ombudspersons?

Faculty Ombudspersons offer a variety of services to faculty members:

  • Private consultation regarding an issue (to provide information to the faculty member; to facilitate reflective thinking about the issue, to explore informal and formal options, to determine acceptable outcomes, to develop an action plan)
  • Exploration of an issue with others on behalf of the faculty member (to gather information on behalf of the faculty member through face-to-face meetings or other forms of communication, with or without the faculty member in attendance and with or without keeping the faculty member anonymous)
  • Facilitation of meetings between the faculty member and an administrator (in which the Ombudsperson participates only to ensure that both parties are heard and any proposed and accepted outcome is clearly understood by both parties)
  • Formal reports to the Faculty Senate and administrators regarding general patterns across cases of concerns that need to be addressed by UTK administration and the Faculty Senate

When should faculty members seek the services of a Faculty Ombudsperson?

Faculty members may contact the Lead Ombudsperson at any time to request the services of a particular Ombudsperson or to be assigned an Ombudsperson based on availability. The Lead Ombudsperson can help the faculty member determine whether Ombuds services are appropriate and/or whether to seek other services. The intent is for faculty members to seek Ombudsperson services instead of or prior to filing a formal appeal, while there is still an opportunity to resolve issues at an informal level. Faculty members can seek information and talk informally with an Ombudsperson after a formal appeal has been initiated. However, the Ombudsperson is not directly involved in the formal appeal process. Seeking Ombuds services in no way changes or eliminates any other formal, administrative, or legal options for resolving a conflict or issue.

What is the procedure for seeking the services of a Faculty Ombudsperson?

A faculty member should contact the Lead Ombudsperson, preferably by phone, to request services. (It should be noted that neither email nor fax is a viable means of preserving confidentiality.) Only a name and contact information is needed, unless a faculty member is requesting the services of a particular Ombudsperson. Additional information will be gathered by the designated Ombudsperson. In general, a faculty member will be assigned an Ombudsperson from a unit outside his or her unit. Assignments of Ombudspersons are made on a rotating basis. In situations in which a faculty member needs immediate services, efforts will be made to accommodate such needs, if possible.

How should information be shared with the Faculty Ombudspersons?

The faculty member and designated Ombudsperson either meet face-to-face or talk by telephone for an orientation session in which the faculty member shares information related to the issue and the Ombudsperson provides an overview of services available. In some cases, services are provided during that contact and no further meetings are necessary. In other cases, the faculty member and Ombudsperson make plans for how to proceed in gathering more information and/or meeting with others. The faculty member may choose to share written documents with the Ombudsperson. If documents are given to the Ombudsperson, they will be shared with others only at the direction of the faculty member. Because email is not considered confidential, it is recommended that all information be shared orally or through mail or hand-delivered documents.

Is information shared with a Faculty Ombudsperson confidential?

Ombudspersons make every attempt to keep all information in confidence unless the party sharing the information gives permission to disclose it. Parties should keep in mind that information might have to be shared if required by law for example, if the information indicates possible harm to self or another is being contemplated). Although one Ombudsperson is designated to directly assist a given faculty member, the three Ombudspersons may share information within the team. The Ombudspersons also work together to decide what anonymous information should be shared in general concerns and recommendations that make up their report to the appropriate Faculty Senate committees and to administrators. Information in these reports is general in nature and does not reveal specifics that can directly identify any faculty member or unit. The purpose of these reports is to bring general and recurring issues to the attention of the Faculty Senate and appropriate administrators so that policy, procedural and communicative practices to improve the working atmosphere at UTK can be informed by Ombuds work.

Under what circumstances will an Ombudsperson communicate with others about a faculty member’s case?

Communication with others about a specific case occurs only with the permission of the faculty member, other than discussions conducted amongst the three Ombudspersons. In many situations, an Ombudsperson can gather information for a faculty member without revealing his or her identity. This information often can aid in clearly delineating facts and assumptions. In some situations, it is helpful for the Ombudsperson to reveal certain kinds of information to others involved in the issue, but this is done only after permission is granted by the faculty member involved.

If the faculty member decides to initiate a formal appeal, what is the role of the Faculty Ombudsperson?

Ombudspersons do not participate in the formal appeal process, whether the appeal is through administrative channels, the Faculty Senate Appeals Committee, or the Office of Equity and Diversity. Ombudspersons are available to provide consultation to faculty members in the process of an appeal.

How can one faculty member’s case help improve working conditions for everyone?

As faculty members share issues, patterns of general concern become evident. For example, Ombuds work might reveal a pattern of ambiguity or inconsistency in applying departmental and college bylaws in compliance with the Faculty Handbook and the Faculty Evaluation Manual. This information can be shared with the Faculty Senate and administrators in a general recommendation from the Ombudspersons without revealing any faculty member’s or unit’s identity.

How does the UTK Administration benefit from the Ombuds work?

Administrators, whether faculty administrators or non-faculty administrators, can use the Ombuds Team reports, along with recommendations from appropriate Faculty Senate committees, to improve practices that recruit, retain, and reward excellent faculty. Administrators are invited to discuss Ombuds work with the Faculty Ombudspersons as needed. The Ombuds Office is part of a long-range strategy to facilitate better working relations and enhance the experience of the university as a community.