2021-2022 Report of the Office of the Ombudsman


2021-2022 Report of the Office of the Ombudsman

2021-2022 Report of the Office of the Ombudsman

Jennifer Pinto-Martin, University Ombudsman


Returning to campus after COVID has had both benefits and challenges. While the return to interactions with colleagues and students has been rewarding, returning to campus after more than two years of virtual communication between faculty, students, and staff has introduced increased potential for friction.

Many schools and on-campus units continue to debate whether to support some form of offsite work, whether it is full-time onsite, full-time remote, or hybrid work. COVID-related policies and decisions, as well as their interpretation and application, continue to evolve as the pandemic waxes and wanes. There is a growing awareness of the impact of these changes on the entire Penn community.

The Office of the Ombuds is a confidential, informal, impartial and independent resource available to assist faculty, students and staff who are struggling to resolve these and other issues involving conflicts, disputes and barriers to a successful engagement as a member of the Penn Community.

The year in review

The number of visitors to the Ombuds Office increased from 153 in 2020-2021 to 186 in the 2021-2022 academic year, an increase of 20.56%. Employment issues continue to represent the majority of issues brought to the office’s attention (46% of issues discussed). Staff accounted for 45% of total office visits. See Table 1. Common concerns among staff included organizational climate; toxic work environments; lack of transparency on decisions; discipline and performance issues; lack of collegiality; job classification issues; problems related to employment opportunities; and COVID-related policies and decisions. See Table 2.

We also saw an increase in the number of faculty visitors (16% of total visits) and graduate and professional students (24% of total visits). Among faculty members, some of the key issues we heard about included: job security and related issues; tenure and promotion issues; renewal and interpretation of contracts; and faculty recruitment and related practices. Reports of lack of collegiality and bad behavior (abusive, degrading, intimidating, demoralizing behavior; racist behavior; and microaggressions) were also common. Issues related to authorship and intellectual property have also been raised.

With respect to graduate and professional students, recurring themes included issues such as: relationships between advisors and faculty; miscommunication; programmatic structure and content; and the integration of students into programs and the dropout of programs. Behavioral issues involving peers and teachers (abusive, degrading, intimidating, demoralizing behaviors; microaggressions) were also frequently reported.

Consistent with past years, a significant concern reported to the Office of the Ombuds was behavioral issues (24% of reported issues), from all corners of the University community. These included abrasive, abusive and inappropriate behavior; microaggressions; intimidation; racist behavior; sexual harassment and other forms of sexual misconduct; and discrimination. For example, 7.8% of visitors reporting employment issues also reported related behavioral issues. Similarly, four of the 46 visitors with academic problems (8.7%) also reported associated behavioral problems.

Penn community members who are in a position to influence the culture and climate of the organizational unit to which they belong or lead are encouraged to be mindful of the importance of collegiality and respectful treatment of others, to model these behaviors and to take action in the event of bad behavior. Penn is a collection of over 50,000 human beings and conflict and arguments will inevitably occur. Problematic behaviors of which we are informed at the Office of the Ombudsman do not have to follow. We encourage members of the Penn community who find themselves in conflict or litigation with others to contact the Office of the Ombudsman before the matter escalates, when an amicable resolution can still be achieved. A description of the types of support we provide is available in Table 3.

During the past school year, we also engaged in educational programs in several schools and units to raise awareness of the role of the ombudsman and the ways the office can be used to resolve conflict. In addition, several educational sessions on microaggressions and bullying and conflict mediation were offered and were very well received.

I personally want to express my deepest gratitude to Marcia Martinez-Helfman, who has announced her retirement and will be leaving once we have a successor in place. Marcia has been a loyal and committed partner of the Faculty Ombudsman for over 11 years and I have enjoyed working with her and learning from her. I wish him all the best in the next phase of his life!

Table 1: Visitors by rule

Faculty 30 16.13%
Graduate/Professional 44 23.66%
First cycle 14 7.53%
Personal 83 44.62%
Post-Docs 5 2.69%
Other ten 5.37%
TOTAL 186 100%

Table 3: Types of interaction with visitors



Exploring options

Listen to the visitor’s explanation of the problem or concern and help identify possible avenues of resolution, alternative resources, possible action or inaction, etc. and to assess the relative merits of the options.


Provide the visitor with approaches, methods, choice of language, tone, etc. to respond to the circumstances; role play and rehearsal of communications.

Penn Resource Survey

Contact the Penn Resource directly to gather information relevant to resolving the dispute, or that may contribute to a better understanding of the circumstances by one or more of the parties.

Referral to internal resource (within Penn)

Provide the visitor with a description and contact information of University resources that may be able to assist in the matter.

Referral to an external resource (outside of Penn)

Provide the visitor with a description and contact information of University resources that may be able to assist in the matter.

Facilitated mediation/conversation (offered and/or hosted)

Offer to serve as a neutral intermediary between parties wishing to meet to discuss issues, concerns, conflicts, etc., and arrange a meeting upon request and mutual agreement of the parties.

Reference to Penn Policy

Direct the visitor to the statements of policies, procedures, and practices as officially issued by the University, a school, academic department, center, program, administrative unit, etc., primarily available on the website of the University.

Shuttle Diplomacy

Serve as a channel of information between parties who are unable or unwilling to communicate directly with each other.


Activity or participation not falling under any other category.


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