This Charter below was signed by both Brown University President, Christina Paxson and University Ombuds, Julie Weber on June 21, 2021.
University Ombuds Office Charter
Brown University Ombuds Office
The University Ombuds Office (the “Office”) opened in 2006 as a part-time office to support faculty and postdoctoral scholars in conflicts they were facing, with a focus on equity and fairness. In 2012, the Office expanded its services to include staff, graduate students, and medical students, comprising the served community (“Served Community”) that the Office still serves today. Throughout its tenure, the Office has provided confidential, informal, neutral, and independent assistance to members of the Served Community who are facing conflicts or concerns affecting their work, life, or study at Brown University (“the University”).
The Office is staffed by a professional Ombuds (the “University Ombuds”) who practices in accordance with the provisions of this Charter as well as the International Ombuds Association’s (“IOA”) Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice. The Office reports directly to the President of the University.
The mission of the Office is to help foster and support a respectful, ethical, and equitable working, learning, and living environment for the diverse members of the Served Community. The Office accomplishes this by serving as a confidential, informal, neutral, and independent resource that promotes constructive problem-solving, effective communication, mutual respect, fairness, and increased organizational capacity for conflict management. Where the Office provides a neutral and confidential channel of communication, it supplements rather than replaces existing formal channels of communication (e.g., HR, Compliance). Moreover, the Office not only assists the Served Community in resolving conflict or surfacing issues, but also helps the University administration operate in a manner consistent with the mission and ideals of the University.
In pursuit of its mission, the Office regularly assists members of the Served Community in recognizing, preventing, and managing academic- or work-related concerns or conflicts. In addition, the Office supports the growth of conflict competence by offering education and training on conflict management matters. Finally, the Office collects and shares anonymized, aggregated, and non-confidential data and information regarding users of the service (“Visitors”), concerns, and trends both through annual and special reports as well as through upward feedback to the University administration as appropriate to support positive systemic change.
The Office’s work is informed by many of the same core values that guide the University’s work, including the values of integrity, fairness, diversity, equity, inclusion, and excellence.
Functions of Office
Functions include, but are not limited to:
- Listening and helping Visitors to clarify underlying interests
- Providing Visitors with information and exploring options for resolving conflict or surfacing issues of concern
- Identifying resources within and outside of the University to share with Visitors
- Facilitating conversations and/or mediating disputes between members of the Served Community to resolve issues, as appropriate and agreed upon by all involved parties
- Coaching and providing conflict analysis
- Collecting data on emerging trends and patterns while safeguarding Visitor anonymity and confidentiality
- Training on conflict management topics for both small and large groups
- Utilizing data to create annual reports, including proposing annual recommendations for systemic and organizational change
- Providing upward feedback to the University’s senior administration, protecting the anonymity of Visitors and the confidentiality of communications with them
Standards of Practice
The Office operates according to the IOA’s Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice. The Office will regularly publicize and educate the University on the confidential, informal, neutral, and independent nature of its services through its website, promotional materials, public appearances, and in consultations with Visitors.
Regardless of permission, the Office functions on an informal and off-the-record basis. The Office is not authorized to make decisions or policy, investigate, arbitrate, judge, discipline, award, or in any other way participate in any formal investigation or formal process within the University concerning University matters. The Office also does not give legal advice. The Office follows no prescribed sequence of steps and is not a required step in any formal University policy or process. If a Visitor wishes to engage in a formal procedure, such as filling a grievance or putting the University on Notice, the Office may inform the Visitor about how to do so.
The Office also has no authority to make, change, overrule, or set aside University decisions or policy.
The Office is neutral and unaligned. The Office is not an advocate or representative for any party to a dispute, conflict, or issue; it does not take sides. Instead, the Office advocates for fair process. It considers the rights and interests of all parties involved with the goal of facilitating mutually agreeable resolutions that are fair, equitable, and in keeping with University policies and the law.
The Office will avoid involvement in matters where there may be a conflict of interest. In the event that the University Ombuds becomes aware of a personal or private stake, real or perceived, in the outcome of a matter, the University Ombuds will disclose the potential conflict of interest to all parties who are involved in the matter. The University Ombuds will take all steps to manage or avoid the conflict, and if the conflict of interest cannot be managed or avoided, the University Ombuds will recuse themselves and communicate this recusal to all involved parties.
The Office is independent in structure, function, and appearance to the highest degree possible within the University. The Office reports directly to the President in a manner that is independent of ordinary line and staff structure. This independence means that the Office exercises sole discretion regarding whether to become involved in a matter and what steps to undertake regarding each matter.
To fulfill its functions, the Office is given a budget and appropriate space to meet operating needs and pursue continuing professional development. Appropriate space includes that which is:
- physically separate and apart from senior administrators to ensure independence and neutrality,
- in a discrete campus location with minimal sound transfer to adjacent spaces to ensure confidentiality, and
- access to campus security if needed, in case of emergency.
The Office and the University assert that the identity of Visitors and their communications with the University Ombuds and the Office are confidential pursuant to the terms of this Charter and pursuant to any other applicable law or legal basis. Because the Office is a purely voluntary resource established on the basis of the principles of informality, neutrality, independence, and confidentiality described in this Charter, those using the Office will be understood to have agreed to abide by these principles and this Charter and not call the University Ombuds or anyone from the Office to testify or produce documents relating to confidential communications in any legal, administrative or other proceeding. The University has also agreed not to call the University Ombuds or anyone from the Office to testify or produce documents relating to confidential communications in any such proceedings.
The Office holds the identity and all communications with Visitors in strict confidence unless:
- The Visitor gives the University Ombuds permission to make disclosure and the University Ombuds determines, in their sole discretion, that it is appropriate to do so;
- The University Ombuds determines that there is an imminent risk of serious harm;
- There has been a report of child abuse; or
- The University Ombuds is expressly required by law to make disclosure.
The University has also agreed to cooperate with the Office in defending efforts to compel the Office to disclose confidential communications.
Authority of the Office
Discretion to Act or Not to Do So
The Office has authority and discretion in how it handles and manages issues that are brought to the Office, including having full discretion to discuss a range of options – both formal and informal – that are available to each Visitor.
Without having received a specific complaint/concern from a Visitor, the Office may initiate inquiries concerning matters when it believes such matters warrant attention, based on direct observation and/or experience.
The Office may decline to inquire into a matter or may withdraw from a matter if it believes involvement is inappropriate for any reason, including that the matter was not brought in good faith or where the matter appears to be a misuse of the Office. In such cases, the Office will provide notice to the Visitor and others involved in the matter, as appropriate.
Access to Information
The Office may request information from appropriate University officials for the purpose of facilitating a particular situation and/or for analyzing information to make systemic recommendations for positive change. All such officials shall, subject to University policies and protocols, as well as state and federal law, share such information as may be appropriate with reasonable promptness. The Office will maintain the confidentiality of any information disclosed to it by University officials, unless the University official who provided the information specifically authorizes such disclosure.
Access to Legal Counsel
From time to time, the Office may require legal or other professional advice to fulfill its required functions. The Office will be provided legal counsel independent from the University in the event a conflict of interest arises between the Office and the administration or the University, more generally, as decided by the Vice President and General Counsel.
Limitations on the Authority of the Office
Receiving Notice for and Placing Notice on the University
The Office is not authorized to receive or accept Notice of any claims against the University including, but not limited to, allegations of a crime, research misconduct, sexual misconduct, discrimination, or harassment. Specifically, the Office is not a mandatory reporter under Title IX nor is it a Campus Security Authority under the Clery Act and the Violence Against Women Act in part because the Office is not an agent of the University with authority to institute corrective measures on behalf of the University and does not have significant responsibility for student and campus activities.
Additionally, the Ombuds is not, and is not a substitute for, anyone’s lawyer, representative, or counselor. While working with the Ombuds may help a Visitor address their concerns effectively, a Visitor may wish to consult with a lawyer or other appropriate resources to obtain guidance on whether any legal rights may be involved and when or how a Visitor may want to notify the University of a claim. Further, the use of the Office does not extend timelines or deadlines with respect to filing a complaint or grievance, whether internal or external.
The Office will consistently and regularly publicize and verbally inform Visitors that it is not authorized to receive or accept Notice on behalf of the University.
If a Visitor to the Office seeks to put the University on Notice regarding a specific matter or allegation or wants the University to be apprised of this information, the Office will provide the Visitor with the process and/or referral to the appropriate University offices or administrators, so that they may do so directly (e.g., Title IX Office, Office of Research Integrity, Department of Public Safety, etc.).
The Office maintains only anonymous, aggregate data. Formal records are not created, nor are personally identifiable documents preserved. Informal notes may be temporarily created only insofar as they are necessary for case management and are disposed of at the conclusion of a concern.
Collective Bargaining Agreements
The Office will not address issues arising under any Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”), including grievable claims for termination of employment or formal discipline. When presented with a CBA-covered matter, the Office will refer the visitor to the CBA and the union. However, the Office is able to provide services to union members, as long as the issues are not covered in the CBA, such as communication issues with co-workers.
No Retaliation for Using the Office
All members of the Served Community have the right to voluntarily consult, engage in a facilitated conversation, or cooperate with the Office, without concern for actual or threatened retaliation. Any retaliation for exercising this right will not be tolerated.
Amendment/Revocation of Charter
The Charter remains in effect unless revoked. It may be amended only by the written agreement of the University Ombuds and the President of the University, provided that any changes will not alter or affect the confidentiality of previous communications of Visitors with the University Ombuds or the Office.