New UH ombudsman will field complaints
People with conflicts at the University of Hawaii at Manoa -- from a student who disagrees with a professor's grade to a faculty member denied tenure -- will be able to turn to a new ombudsman's office starting this fall.
"We're offering people a neutral confidential place to come in with whatever problems are on their mind," said political science professor Neal Milner, who is setting up the office.
"I think it's a fantastic idea," said Grant Teichman, the president of the undergraduate student government. "Half the battle for students is having knowledge of how this incredibly bureaucratic system works.
"When the ombudsman's office comes, there will at least be a place where they can find some answers."
J.N. Musto, the executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, said he has been advocating for an ombudsman for years.
"Disagreements are part of the nature of every human endeavor," Musto said. "People are often aggrieved, but not necessarily in a way that leads to some specific legal action or a contract grievance."
Sometimes disputes fester because people have difficulty talking to one another, Musto said. An ombudsman can help both sides, or perhaps multiple sides, understand each other.
Milner said a large part of the job involves listening and giving advice to help people navigate the bureaucracy of the university so they can solve their own problems.
For example, a student who disagrees with a grade could get advice on how to approach the professor to change a grade and information on what Milner said is a little-known, formal process to appeal grades.
The office could also refer people to mediation or, depending on the situation, could step in to help mediate a dispute, Milner said.
"Any big corporation, no matter how enlightened, needs some place that people can turn to outside of the formal processes where they can get their problems solved," Milner said.
The ombudsman won't be able to supersede university policies, and won't have the formal authority to directly resolve disputes.
But if problems keep popping up, Milner said, the ombudsman can also bring them to the attention of top university officials.
"An ombudsman has an obligation when it spots trouble, when it spots patterns, basically to speak truth to power," Milner said.
Anyone who goes to the ombudsman's office is guaranteed confidentiality, Milner said.
Once the ombudsman's office is established, UH-Manoa will join more than 200 universities with an ombudsman to help resolve problems on campus.
Robin Matsunaga, the state's ombudsman, said the UH system generates only a few complaints to his office -- 31 out of about 3,400 he received last year.
The UH ombudsman will also operate a little differently from Matsunaga's office, which has more authority to investigate complaints. But Matsunaga said in general it is a good idea to have an ombudsman.
"A lot of people don't know where they are supposed to go when they have a complaint," Matsunaga said. "I think every agency should have some sort of internal administrative process to review complaints from the public."
Milner said he is likely to be named as the interim ombudsman, and is looking to hire two assistants, although salaries for the positions have not yet been established.
Milner said the office will likely focus on student, faculty and staff complaints, but may also take complaints from nearby community members involving UH-Manoa.
Milner said it's not likely the ombudsman would be called in to mediate the dispute over the Navy research center on campus. But he said if there are lingering resentments between faculty members over the issue, the office might be able to help deal with that.
ROLE OF THE OMBUDSMAN
What will the UH-Manoa ombudsman do?
The ombudsman will listen to student, faculty and staff problems and conflicts and help people navigate the university's bureaucracy to resolve complaints. The ombudsman also may refer people to mediation or act as a mediator and bring problems to the attention of administrators.
What will an ombudsman not do?
The ombudsman will not supersede university policies. Neal Milner, who is setting up the office, said the goal is to make polices and procedures work for people having problems with them, and identify options when policies don't apply.
When will the office open?
The office was established during the Manoa campus reorganization approved last year. Milner is hiring staff and looking for office space on campus. The office is scheduled to open in the fall.