Staff Editorial: Hire University ombudsman

It could be called the “GW shuffle.”

Any member of the campus community trying to solve an issue with the GW bureaucracy is likely to experience the shuffle. It involves multiple transfers among various departments that occasionally might end in a resolution to the initial problem.

With a sprawling campus and a sprawling bureaucracy, it is often difficult for students, staff and faculty to navigate GW departments or receive a fair airing of their concerns. University administrators could show a genuine interest in addressing unresolved issues by joining a growing trend among colleges and establishing a University ombudsman office.

Much like the ombudsman at a newspaper, a University ombudsman exists outside of the formal bureaucracy. While they do receive a university salary, they are given a mandate to operate independently and impartially with regards to other departments and even top-level administrators. The office hears confidential complaints from students, faculty, staff and administrators. It then looks to solve problems or help complainants find the appropriate department to approach. Stony Brook University and the University of Virginia have ombudsmen who have successfully mediated high-profile complaints at their colleges.

The need for an ombudsman at GW is apparent to both students and staff. The University, for its part, recognized a need for improved customer service and instituted programs to that effect. Andrew Sonn, a former Community Living and Learning Center housing director, now serves as director of Student and Academic Support Service’s customer service initiatives. CLLC created the “CLLC resource desk,” a one-stop location to service students with housing concerns.

These initiatives and others under the customer service umbrella benefit students but do little to address greater interdepartmental issues and student concerns outside of CLLC or SASS. A University-wide ombudsman office could ameliorate these issues. Such an office would go beyond the traditional roles of intra-department customer service offices to confidentially and independently evaluate student, faculty and staff issues.

Perhaps more importantly, such an office would hear complaints from lower-level staffers – those who are on the front line of service at every department. Because the office would hear complaints confidentially, staffers could bring up consistent issues that their superiors either neglect or are incapable of handling. The ombudsman would have the power to seek out a solution to the problem or at least bring the problem to the attention of an administrator with the power to effect change.

The appropriate ombudsman would have experience with higher education administration but needs to come from outside of the GW community to reduce the amount of personal ties with their constituents. Because the International Ombudsman Association – which a GW ombudsman would presumably join – holds ombudsmen to a code of conduct, mechanisms are already codified to ensure impartiality. Physically separating the office from Rice Hall would also benefit the ombudsman’s mission, crowd enhancing the general perception that the ombudsman does not operate under the mantle of the administration.

As has been the case at other universities, an ombudsman might even pay for himself by mitigating conflicts before they turn into costly lawsuits, something with which GW has had extensive experience.

An ombudsman would not cure all the ills of an expansive GW administration. In reality, much of such an office’s efficacy would depend on the amount of respect and support it is given by University administrators. The University has taken steps in recent years to help students address their concerns with the Executive Vice President and Treasurer’s Office, SASS and CLLC. It is time to enfranchise the entire campus community with the power to independently and confidentially address GW’s malfunctions.

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