Graduate students see change in Ombuds Office, new opportunities arise

Graduate and Professional Student Senate meeting in the Sun Room of the Memorial Union on Dec. 2.

Amber Mohmand

In a university dominated by undergraduates, graduate students often find themselves in a position where if someone speaks about their struggle, they are perceived as weak or unfit to remain in graduate school.

The Ombuds Office is there to provide tools and resources to graduate and professional students. Faculty, staff and postdocs have crucial conversations and empower them to resolve conflicts themselves.

The Ombuds Office was founded as a pilot program in 2006 by two retired staff members. The program was so successful the university decided to make it a priority, granting it part-time status soon after.

In Sept. 2017, it went through a significant change by moving from part-time to full-time due at least in part to demand, led by Deanna Clingan-Fischer, the university’s former ombuds officer.

Unbeknownst to the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS), an elected governing body through which graduate and professional students express their concerns for the welfare of graduate and professional students, Iowa State announced they would not renew the contract with Clingan-Fischer. 

Members of GPSS were not directly informed of the change and found out through a tip from the inside, which James Klimavicz, who was GPSS vice president at the time, said he believes was not voluntary. 

“So what happened was we have meetings across campus, and we meet with quite a few of the administration, and we received a tip from them —  I’d rather not say who it was — but we received a tip from them that they had been informed that [Clingan-Fischer] would be leaving very shortly and that it was not on her own terms,” Klimavicz said. “[Clingan-Fischer’s] contract was for three years and then it’s up for renewal. Three years expired on Aug. 6, so they elected not to renew her. But they did not talk to any of the stakeholders as far as I can tell, so we found out from our person, and they let us know that she’d be leaving.”

As a result, GPSS voted for an implicit call to action — a censure — for the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost on July 27. 

“Indeed, the university’s policies regarding reopening this fall continues the trend of relegating graduate and professional students to the shadows from university and department web pages, prioritizing the undergraduate experience to the claim that graduate student tuition is negligible compared to undergraduate tuition,” Klimavicz said during the July 27 meeting. “We have often been marginalized. Now, we don’t even have an on-campus Ombuds Office to talk about our potential grievances. Now more than ever, it is crucial that graduate and professional students accord each other and whatever. I urge you to speak out when necessary and stand up for what is right.” 

The Ombuds Office had reported to the Office of the President since its creation in 2008, which the Office of the President was responsible to maintain jurisdiction. Recently, there was a change in the offices of whom the Ombuds Office reports to. 

The Ombuds Office now reports to Associate Provost for Faculty Dawn Bratsch-Prince in the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost.

Because of the change, there were rising concerns that the Ombuds Office would be subject to politics of existing under an office that directly administrates a group served by the Ombuds Office — a perceived conflict of interest.

“Ombuds, in general, is there to serve as a neutral party —  to essentially help resolve issues in a nonformal capacity, so you’re not making a formal complaint or anything like that,” Klimavicz said. “It’s not really like counseling, but it does help with some of these interpersonal conflicts, potentially. And there’s also, they can help with things like finding correct policy so if you have a problem or a concern. Is there a policy for that? So they’re really there to help people work through either interpersonal conflicts or other potential sources of conflict like that.”

For example, some students may be asked to work long hours, so instead of a 40-hour week, they might be working a 60- or 80-hour week. They could go to the Ombuds Office and resolve the issues there without lodging a formal complaint against their manager or professor.

“So it’s really important that that person be independent and impartial so that they can see a neutral party and figure out the fairest way to resolve any potential issues,” Klimavicz said. “And of course, that’s a tremendous importance for graduate and professional students because we’re basically here, completely under the control of a supervisor or major professor, and we have very little power.”

After the censure, Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen and current GPSS President Eleanor Field, graduate student in entomology, had a meeting about the change. 

“The President’s meeting was great; she answered all of our questions and she did apologize for not including us or for not letting us know that the decision was made,” Field said. “And she directed future questions to go to the provost office because now, obviously, ombuds is under that particular office, so it was a good meeting.” 

Field was also introduced to the two ombuds officers, Dina Eisenberg and Chuck Doran. 

“They’re both really impressive people; I’m really excited that they’re here I always say, and they seem like they can do really great work here,” Field said. “I hope that students will use them as an excellent resource, and they’ve really gone out of their way to make themselves accessible just to me and to some of the other people that have reached out to them. And it was very open just listening about the situation that they’re walking into. They were curious to hear a little bit about, you know, maybe some of these tensions with their entry, and they were really great people.”

Though the two ombuds officers were contracted by Iowa State, Eisenberg is based in New York while Doran is based in Massachusetts

“We were contacted by ISU and we learned rather quickly is that ISU is deeply committed to the Ombuds process and to providing faculty, staff, professional services [and] graduate students with a vehicle for expressing concerns and talking about challenges,” Doran said. “We were honored to be asked and given the current pandemic, being virtual doesn’t really seem to really affect how we do our work. Given that all of our work — and everyone else — are online, it just seems to be a kind of a natural fit — so we feel like we’re present in Ames.”

Eisenberg is a seasoned mediator and former corporate ombuds for Bank of America, and developed an understanding of the uniqueness of academic life from her time as ombuds for Berklee College of Music, according to the Iowa State website

“I don’t actually think of myself as an ‘officer’ because that word kind of has a connotation around it; I just think of myself as an ‘ombuddy,’ and, you know, that’s a little friendlier,” Eisenberg said. “The most important and the most satisfying part of being an ombudsman is giving someone an opportunity to see what’s true for them and lift their voice. … We’re not often given an opportunity to be listened to at a deep level and ask questions about our interests that help us elicit what’s really going to make our lives happier. And to be able to do that for people is really, at least for me, you know, a gift and a blessing. It makes my life better. I feel happy that I’m able to make somebody else’s life better. And so I really cherish this role.”

The ombuds officers — or “ombuddies” — have said they see being virtual as a benefit amid a pandemic. For example, Eisenberg said being completely virtual helps maintain confidentiality by eliminating the possibility of someone walking by the Ombuds Office and seeing a familiar face.

“There’s no physical way for people to figure out if you’ve been to the ombudsman,” Eisenberg said. “… One of the things that we’re bringing to the party is this opportunity in a really unsettling and challenging time to have a safe, neutral, independent [and] confidential place where you can talk about issues that you might not otherwise want to bring up. So everybody right now is at some point in their life troubled, scared [and] anxious about the future. And we just don’t have that many places where we can go and talk about that without having a consequence.”

The Ombuds Office is a neutral space, so it will not be an advocate nor will they formally investigate complaints or provide legal services. Rather, it is a place where students and faculty can resolve conflict, whether it be with a peer or with a supervisor. It also doesn’t serve undergraduate students and instead redirects them to the university’s human resources. 

Doran is an experienced ombuds, mediator, and dispute resolution professional who enjoys working with faculty, staff and graduate students to surface and resolve matters facing the ISU community according to the Iowa State website, said the work is driven by four principles: Independence, neutrality, confidentiality and informality. 

“One of the first questions a visitor asks is ‘Can I be upfront with you without you telling somebody else?’ And we say that’s exactly what we do,” Doran said. “Sometimes people just call to talk and say, ‘I just want to find out about the office and find out about you.’ And we’ve discovered that sometimes people will then follow up two weeks later and say, ‘I just wanted to get a sense of, are you a good listener [and if] you’re going to take me seriously. And since you passed my first test, here’s what I really want to talk about.’” 

As a graduate student, Field said there has often been a cycle or an “academic hazing experience,” where if someone speaks about their struggle, they are perceived as weak or unfit to remain in graduate school. Field said she thinks this is a reason why GPSS was upset to hear the university made these changes to the office without really letting anyone know. 

“The Ombuds Office represents the one area that views graduate students as equals and as colleagues in the academic process,” Field said. “When we have concerns [and] we go to someone else, the answer is almost always the PI is in the right mood, the answer is almost always, ‘Well, you chose to join that lab,’ ‘You kind of have to put up with those working conditions.’ And especially when you talk to people outside of graduate school, I always get that response. They’re always like, ‘Well, you knew this,’ or ‘Well, they’re the boss and you just have to put up with it.'”

Field said the answer she typically gets is strange when she has concerns for a toxic environment. 

“To be met with ‘Oh, that’s just part of the process, that’s just academia’ is really, really disheartening,” Field said. “And I think that’s what kind of leads to a lot of mental health problems and isolation because graduate students are told to internalize their problems, and they’re told that we just can’t handle the system, when in reality, this system needs a lot of work. And so I think it all comes down to the perception of what a graduate student is because the very title ‘graduate student’ makes people think that we’re kind of akin to undergraduates, and [our] experiences [are] entirely different.” 

The Ombuds Office acts as a mediator — an impartial, neutral ground to where faculty, staff, postdocs and graduate and professional students can come confidentially air their grievances and, if desired, take steps to make a change. They provide conversation coaching, policy advice and can act as mediator between parties.  

“We have no power to actually enforce or tell somebody what to do,” Doran said. “All we can do is listen to people and help them provide some clarity. This is similar to a friend who helps you come to your own conclusions. In the end, they’re the ones who decide the course of action.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify Chuck Doran’s quotes.