UU introduces ombudsperson for staff and students

The ombudsperson can be called when a conflict gets out of hand. Photo: Shutterstock

The Executive Board has decided to rebrand the role of the two confidential advisors for staff: they will now be called ombudspersons. But it's not just a name change. The ombudspersons will now have more possibilities to conduct investigations in case of possible structural issues harming working conditions. The change was announced in a memo sent to the university council right before the summer.

With this measure, the university complies with a collective labour agreement made with the unions. That document mentions that all universities should have an ombudsperson for employees, starting July 1, 2021. This agreement resulted from concerns about an unsafe work environment at universities, an issue that came to light in a study conducted by unions FNV and Vawo.

Investigation in case of structural issues
The universities and unions joined forces to establish a number of principles for the tasks the new independent, objective ombudspersons should conduct. They can, for instance, identify undesirable developments within universities, and issue advice, whether requested to or not. They can also facilitate mediation in individual cases and, if needed, conduct further investigation.

In Utrecht, these tasks are very similar to the ones already attributed to the two confidential advisors for staff, says the Executive Board. Hence the decision to change their job titles. The two ombudspersons will have increased powers to conduct investigations in case of possible structural issues or negative trends.

Stimulating safe work environment
The ombudspersons will focus on all issues that concern the staff, not just issues surrounding inappropriate behaviour. The board also found it necessary to appoint a separate ombudsperson for students.

The ombudsperson for students will focus on issues related to inappropriate behaviour and will not be allowed to handle complaints about educational issues, as there are already other options for this type of complaint. Students will not be able to contact the ombudsperson directly. First they have to file their complaint within the faculty. The Executive Board is considering appointing a new ombudsperson for students, possibly splitting the work between two people. This person would work for two or three days a week.

Alleged culture of silence
The memo states the Executive Board is striving to create a system that stimulates a safe work and study environment. These past few months, there were fiery discussions at the university about the way the university handles complaints concerning inappropriate behaviour, as well as about an alleged culture of silence at UU.

These discussions were ignited by a recent case of a professor who had to leave the university after being accused of sexual harassment. Students then lobbied for improved complaint processes. An external advisory report also urged the university to make the complaint procedure more transparent.

Although the number of complaints has been limited, the Executive Board expects the university to deal with complicated cases surrounding sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying more often. The latest employee monitor was cause for concern.

Biased role
In the new situation, employees and students who report inappropriate behaviour will still start the process by contacting one of the two special confidential advisors for inappropiate behaviour. They will remain in place. The scope of their jobs, however, will change.

These confidential advisors used to advise the complainants and then mediate the situation and find solutions. Now, their role will be more partial, as they're expected to side with one of the parties in the conflict.

The advisors for inappropiate behaviour can also indicate to the ombudspersons which trends or issues they have identified that might warrant further investigation. They’ll also be responsible for the aftercare of complainants and accused.

University-wide office
In the last meeting with the University Council, held right before the summer, rector Henk Kummeling said he wished to ensure that all students and staff knew where to go in case of complaints, and what to expect of the people they contact. Apart from the ombudspersons and confidential advisors, there are several other UU employees and departments that can offer assistance in case of problems.

That’s why the memo also states that a university-wide ‘desk’ or office will be created to quickly refer staff, students and managers to the right people. It is also really important to provide good information about the topic on the intranet and the internet, but students and employees should also be able to visit an employee of the university-wide office in person. Employees there could also assist confidential advisors and ombudspersons, by helping collect and identify complaints, for instance.

Complaints about lack of involvement
In the University Council meeting, both students and employees said they were happy with the appointment of two ombudspersons who can conduct independent investigations. They were not as satisfied, however, about the late timing of the memo, neither were they pleased with the minimal involvement council members had in its creation.

Most of all, they were annoyed because the staff members of the University Council had lobbied for the appointment for an ombudsperson for years. In previous discussions, the Executive Board promised to get the council involved in any further steps. Student member Tom Buster, who’s also a member of the Inappropriate Behaviour Task Force: “We can’t provide high-quality co-determination this way.”

Rector Henk Kummeling says the delay in providing this information was mainly caused by the fact that the discussion about the ombudspersons for staff first needed to be held with the unions in the Local Meeting, due to the collective labour agreement. That’s where the co-determination was in this case. The University Council did have right of consent regarding the ombudsperson for students, but the choice to appoint an independent ombudsperson for students wasn’t made until very late in the process. That's the reason for not having discussed it with the council.

Anonymous reporting is controversial
Council member Tom Buster couldn’t do anything but approve the ombudsperson he himself had requested. Especially when Kummeling had ensured the new ombudsperson for students wouldn’t start without “fully taking care of” the methods to work with the students in the council.

One of the issues that will be discussed in the future is the implementation of anonymous reporting. Numerous University Council members urged for this measure because, right now, students are hesitant to report the inappropriate behaviour of their teachers. Reports should also be shared at an early stage. The Executive Board does want to provide input on ways in which reporting complaints can be made easier, but also sees the danger of unjust reports and excessive openness.

The new way of working will be implemented in the next two years, and then it will be evaluated in the summer of 2023. During this period, the Executive Board aims to study whether the position of the ombudsperson could possibly be shared with two partner universities: Eindhoven and Wageningen. This could possibly contribute to the position of the ombudsperson becoming even more stable and independent.