Acting on a report by the Faculty Council on Diversity and Inclusion, BU has created a new and critical position, which was filled in September. President Robert A. Brown introduced the new member of the community at this year’s University Management Conference.
“One of the most important recommendations of (the faculty council) was the establishment of the ombuds office as a new mechanism to help faculty, staff, and students bring forward issues that are negatively affecting life within the workplace of our University,” Brown told the crowd at the George Sherman Union’s Metcalf Ballroom on October 26.
Brown created the council in fall 2006 to help the University support and attract a diverse faculty. The group recommended, among other things, regular and careful tracking of faculty satisfaction. Putting a face on that suggestion is Francine Montemurro, who is a member of the president’s staff and reports directly to Brown.
For the past 12 years, Montemurro has held a similar position at Binghamton University in upstate New York. She arrives on campus with a legal background, but stresses that she is not a counselor or a therapist. One of the most important aspects of her position, she told the audience at the management conference, is listening — a skill she has honed through countless mediations between divorced parents, disputing neighbors, and victims and offenders.
“The most condensed, bottom-line, nutshell description I can give you is the ombuds office is open to students, faculty, and staff, and it offers a confidential place for people’s voices to be heard and to problem-solve,” she said. “I also take the pulse of the institution and bring what we call ‘upper feedback’ to those in managerial positions and senior staff about what we’re hearing, what the trends are, and the patterns of complaints.”
A key goal of Montemurro’s office, she said, is to nip problems in the bud. “I have a colleague who is the ombuds at the UN,” she told those attending the conference. “He likes to say, ‘We want to be more like the smoke detector than the fire extinguisher.’”
BU Today: Why did Binghamton University establish an ombuds office?
Montemurro: Because there were so many concerns that didn’t have a nice, neat place you could bring them. They would go to affirmative action — a perfectly good place if you have an equal opportunity complaint. Or they would go to the dean of students if it was a student complaint. But what they were trying to do was offer a place for an amalgam of different concerns. It’s important for an institution to have a multipoint entry approach. The more people you have, the less likely someone is to slip through the cracks.
Can you explain what an ombuds does?
It sounds silly, but providing a safe place for people to express their concerns. Listening. Helping people to understand what’s really concerning them. Answering questions about policy, or finding someone who can. Coaching visitors on how to be self-advocates. Mediating, facilitating, helping people develop options to resolve problems, whether it’s with my help or on their own. I always say the ombudsman is a good first step.
My job is to advocate for fairness and a fair administration of process. I don’t take sides on behalf of any individual or any cause. The most important thing is confidentiality. We maintain the privacy of visitors’ identity, as well as the content of a conversation. You can’t put an ombudsman on legal notice. If somebody is in a formal grievance, than I am not involved. I only work through informal means. I may do mediations, but it’s all informal. I don’t do formal investigations, either. Although my paycheck comes from BU, I’m outside of the normal administrative structure. I report directly to the president for administrative and budgetary purposes, but I don’t report through various levels, and that keeps the office independent from the pressure of other offices.
What sorts of issues did you handle at Binghamton?
For faculty, it could be concerns about departmental politics, interpersonal disputes, concerns about clinical affiliations, intellectual property, the interpretations of policy and procedure, workplace politics, equity in work distribution.
For students, outside of formal grade grievances, there could be concerns about equity in the classroom, the environment of a class — harassment, discrimination — and student employment disputes. If someone wants to file a formal complaint, I send them to the right office. There could be concerns, especially from graduate students, on whether their thesis committee and advisors are right.
What percentage of those consulting you were students?
Maybe 40 percent. Another 40 percent were faculty, and 20 percent were staff. It ebbs and flows from year to year.
What concerns don’t you handle?
If there’s an existing grievance process, we don’t duplicate it. If you have a parking fine, I don’t handle it, but I send you to the right place. If you have a concern about safety, I don’t become a building inspector. Sometimes people just don’t know where to go with a problem. There are all sorts of concerns that don’t fall under policy or procedure. Maybe they have been to the appropriate office and they perceive that person has not been responsive to their concerns. You try to help people understand what they want and help them satisfy those interests. But I’m not a second level of appeal.
How does your office differ from BU’s Faculty and Staff Assistance Office?
The ombuds office and the FSAO will sometimes handle issues that overlap, but we have very different missions. The primary duty of the ombudsman’s office is to provide assistance in addressing conflicts and concerns related to life at Boston University. It offers alternatives to formal grievance procedures as a way of resolving problems, and its services are available to faculty, students, and staff at all levels. In my role, I expect to handle, either directly or by referring to another office, just about any kind of University-related concern. As I understand it, the FSAO offers counseling, assessment, and referral to faculty and staff — not students — on a range of personal life issues, such as health concerns, stress, substance abuse, or family problems that may be affecting job performance.
When should people knock on your door?
At the earliest stage possible. Once you have gotten into the formal procedures, I have to be very careful about getting involved.
What have you been doing since becoming BU’s new ombudsperson?
Getting out and meeting as many people in the University as I can. I’m meeting deans and provosts and people at all levels of the University. Part of being an ombudsman is having to constantly tell people what it is you do, because the term is unfamiliar. You have to advertise that you’re there and that you’re a resource. So that’s a constant effort, even when the office isn’t new anymore.
To contact Francine Montemurro, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caleb Daniloff can be reached at email@example.com.