Q&A with Lynn Hollen Lees

The idea of an “ombudsman” or public advocate is an old one, originating in Sweden in the early 19th century. This idea has proven to have staying power, as today, ombuds are visible in companies big and small, private and public, as well as at publications and news outlets, government agencies, and colleges and universities.

Penn’s Office of the Ombudsman was established in 1971 as a safe place where members of the University community could talk through problems in confidence, resolve differences, and think about options.

The mission of the office remains unchanged; it still serves as an unbiased, fair, confidential place where faculty, staff, and students can talk about problems, conflicts, and concerns.

Lynn Hollen Lees, a professor of history emerita in the School of Arts & Sciences, is now in her second year in the ombud’s role. Lees, a staple of University academic and administrative life since 1974, has also worked as the chair of the Department of History, co-director of the Lauder Institute for Management and International Studies, chair of the Graduate Group in International Studies, and a member of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee.

Before her retirement from Penn in 2013, Lees most recently served as the Vice Provost for Faculty, where she oversaw all aspects of faculty life and the academic personnel process at the University, including recruitment, retention, and retirement; appointments, tenure, and promotions; enhancement of faculty diversity and gender and minority equity; and resolution of individual faculty issues, including grievances.

Lees, along with Associate Ombudsman Marcia Martínez-Helfman, who is trained as a lawyer and social worker, guide the Penn community through a number of thorny issues, both personal and professional, and sometimes, where those two roads intersect. While Lees can’t get specific about cases—or even about the number of people who come to see her and Martínez-Helfman—she is adamant that the ombuds remain a neutral party and offer options to people who may not know how to resolve a conflict.

“Some people come to just talk about a fear, a concern, a wish, and to try to get an outside opinion on the way they’re viewing their situation,” Lees says. “You don’t have to do anything more after you come here; it’s completely your decision.”

The Current recently sat down with Lees to learn more about her role as ombuds, why it’s important that the office exist, how her long history of academic and administrative work has prepared her for this role, and her wish for the office.

Q: Describe what you do in your role as ombuds.
A: Well, the title is slightly different on different days. I find the notion of an ombudsman a little bit awkward as a female but ombudsperson is extremely awkward, even more. So some days, we say ombuds. There are different ways of referring to the office. The office is a very old one at Penn. It was first established in 1971 after the report of a University governance committee, and [former Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences] Joel Canaro was the first ombuds. The purpose of the office is to resolve conflicts on an informal basis and what we do is try to provide people with a safe space where they can come and discuss concerns of whatever sort. We then try to help them work through those concerns, to try to figure out what it is they can do about them. For some people, we are a listening space, for other people, they wish to know more about University policies—they need knowledge of what their situation is, what the rules of the University are, what the structures of the University are that could perhaps provide a place of appeal or a place to consult. For others, they want mediation; they want more aggressive sorts of help. But what we are is a confidential space, a safe space for thinking through options and exploring whatever concerns you have.

Q: Who comes to see you?
A: Anyone within the University community can come. Faculty, employees, undergraduate and graduate students, occasionally an alum, a parent of someone. Really anyone in the University community is welcome. 

Q: Why do people come to see you? Is it mostly for job-related concerns, or is it more personal?
A: To answer that I’d like to take one step back. Think about the nature of the University today. We have 12 different schools, we have thousands of employees, we have people here who are research scientists, people who are teachers, people who are nurses, who help serve food. We have people who engage in hundreds of different activities. It’s a diverse environment. It’s an environment that values free speech, it’s an environment where diversity is valued, and it is one into which people come with a variety of different experiences, concerns, and needs. It’s also a very complicated environment in which you have research faculty and post-graduates and graduate students who are engaged in research and then publication. You have people whose job it is to sort out academic problems within the classroom. You have people of multiple backgrounds who have to function in the same office. The issue then for all of these people is how to get along with one another. There are so many different complicated issues that come up in every different school constantly—questions related to ethics, to politics, to personal behavior. And people handle these in different ways. It’s inevitable that there will be certain kinds of conflicts. It’s inevitable that there will be misunderstandings, that there will be different points of view on particular policies, on particular situations. Some kinds of conflicts are inevitable. Now, the University has many different ways of resolving those conflicts. We have an Office of Student Conduct, we have the Office of Affirmative Action, we have the Women’s Center, the Grievance Commission, we have a great many places. Most of these, however, are formal. And they require that you take a stand, that you make a complaint, that you go public. This office is different. It’s a private confidential space where one can come and express concerns. You can come and talk about what your options are. What we try to do is to give people a sense of their options, to let them talk, hear them out, answer questions, and to try to get them to articulate what they want, because if a person decides what it is that he or she wants, they’re then in a much better position to think whether or not they want to do anything more. Some people don’t want to go any further. And we’re here to help them sort through what it is that they want to do.

Q: So, the office is truly independent?
A: It is an independent office. We are nested within the President’s Office, but we don’t report to anyone on individual cases. We’re outside the normal schools’ hierarchy and chain of commands. We are not responsible to deans, we are not responsible to department chairs, or to supervisors. We are independent. 

Q: Why is it important that this office exist?
A: I think that the value is one of giving people a private safe space to air concerns. Most people in the University have someone in authority over them. They have a variety of responsibilities. But supposing they’re in a situation where they feel they’re being dealt with unfairly, or where they can’t report to the person who is their supervisor, perhaps they feel their concerns won’t be taken seriously. Perhaps they feel they won’t be understood. Perhaps they think there might be an issue of discrimination. Very often, people need a place to go to try to sort through how they deal with those issues, which are making their work life or their professional life be less than ideal. They’re in an uncomfortable space and they’re trying to function in a situation where it might be very difficult for them to function comfortably. And this office offers a place to go. A great many institutions, structures, companies, have ombuds, both in the United States and Europe. Governmental agencies, other universities, hospitals, medical schools, private companies. It’s a way to deescalate conflict rather than to resort to some kind of a formal mechanism. This office is not only independent, it’s informal. We don’t keep records. We go to great lengths to avoid keeping records. We delete telephone messages, we urge people not to express themselves via email. If given documents as part of the discussion, when the conversation is over or the interaction is over, those are either returned or shredded. We are not a place where we can be effectively subpoenaed in a lawsuit. We are not here to give testimony for a person. We are a neutral space where people can explore what their concerns are. We’re informal. We’re impartial. We don’t take sides. We can help people think through what their position is, we can get information for them about their situation, but we don’t take sides. We’re an impartial space. And we’re a confidential space. 

Q: So people can be assured that even the fact that they met with you won’t get back to their supervisor or colleagues?
A: Oh, absolutely. There’s a reason we’re in this obscure corner of the Duhring Wing. People do not know where this office is. You’re not likely to encounter your supervisor as you come in here and in any case, there are five or six other offices to which one could obviously be going. We keep a very careful schedule that is anonymous; we schedule people so that we do not have two people coming in at the same time and we encourage people to make an appointment, rather than just to come in, so that someone coming in will not compromise the confidentiality of someone who’s already in the office. We go to great lengths to preserve the anonymity of people who come in. We do not take the concerns of people who come to us to someone else unless we’re given permission to do so, and we very carefully ask for that permission. There’s only sort of two restrictions on that. If we feel that a person is in imminent danger of serious physical harm as a result of something we have been told, we have to report that, and if there’s a legal obligation to report, we follow through on that. But these are extremely limited situations and they are not what concerns the bulk of the inquiries, which have to do with issues of policies, procedures, human behavior. 

Q: Is there a standard procedure when someone comes to see you, or do things really work on a case-by-case basis?
A: It’s a case-by-case basis. The two standards of procedure that we have are in the presentation of the office both on the website and our brochures—we encourage people to make an appointment or to talk to us by phone, so that there is no email trail and when people come in, we go through the material—the guiding principles in the Office of the Ombuds—so that they’re aware what the rules of the game are, in terms of confidentiality, informality, impartiality, so that they get a sense of just why we are different from going to the Grievance Commission, or going to the Office of Affirmative Action. And then, we simply listen. From that point on, it becomes very different. From then on, one could make inquiries with other people, other units at the University to get information. One can have conversations with other people or possibly go to mediation. So, outcomes differ as the cases differ.

Q: You mentioned ombuds that work at other companies or universities. Do you ever discuss cases or best practices with them?
A: There is an international ombuds association and Marcia is very active in that. It has an international membership, it has codes and best practices, it is the main professional organization of ombuds. I went to a conference last year in San Diego to take basic training in ‘ombuds-ing’ and I was there for several days meeting others from around the United States who were coming to take the same course. It was given by people who have long track records as ombuds in a variety of public and private institutions and with whom we discussed best practices, cases, and the kinds of issues that were likely to come up. They have online training seminars, they have yearly meetings, they have committees that discuss a whole range of policies and issues. It’s very active and it is something in which this office is very much embedded. 

Q: How did you come to be in this role? Did you pursue it or were you asked to serve as ombuds?
A: I was asked to serve as ombuds within a few months of having retired from the University and my last position was both professor of history, although I was not teaching, and Vice Provost for Faculty. I was working in the Provost’s office for several years on a whole range of faculty concerns. I was co-director for multiple years of the Lauder Program that links Wharton and SAS.

Q: How did you move from academia into these more administrative roles and how do you think these roles prepared you for the one you have now?
A: Well, I came to Penn first in 1974, when it was a very different sort of place. I was an untenured assistant professor, and I spent many happy years teaching in the History Department a variety of different courses in which my interests became, I think, more and more international and more and more linked to research that went beyond my original field of European social history. And, along the way, I spent six years being chair of the History Department which introduced me to a whole host of administrative concerns and helped me see how academics in various ways really depended upon other academics being willing to take on administrative jobs in order to keep departments, schools, the institution running. And I felt very strongly that the kinds of concerns that one has as a scholar and the ethical concerns that one has with teaching in the classroom, and the interest in free speech as well as in tolerance and incivility—these are values that academic life fosters, but they’re also values that often require active support around the University. I began to see some of these administrative positions as being ones that furthered not only the academic mission of the University, but also furthered these more ethical concerns about fostering the academic community as one that was tolerant and supportive, as well as responsive. I went to a Quaker college, Swarthmore, and my children went to Germantown Friends, and I think I became used to a kind of Quaker style of resolving conflict, where everyone has the right to speak and everyone has a responsibility to listen and then one works through concerns, hopefully coming to consensus or at least to a position of understanding. I so regard this as an ideal mode of working through individual difference, but sometimes that’s not enough and so universities have multiple divisions, committees, policies that are intended to deal with conflict, deal with behavioral difference, and to hold people to very high standards. After I became department chair, my international interests led me to take on quite happily a role at the Lauder Institute for several years, and we were working with a variety of students interested in international studies, language study, as well as interested in their pursuit of an MBA. That taught me a great deal more about Wharton and a great deal more about areas [outside of] Arts & Sciences. And then I was asked by Provost Vincent Price to join the Provost’s office and be Vice Provost for Faculty, which meant that I was interacting with faculty and administrations in all schools, which taught me an enormous amount about policies and people throughout the University. One of the main responsibilities of the Vice Provost for Faculty is to oversee not only faculty hiring, but faculty promotion and tenuring. I got a much better sense of a variety of procedures that really are at the core of the maintenance of the faculty, that of tenuring and promotion. And so by the time I had retired, I think I had acquired a fairly wide knowledge, not only of people but of policies and of faculty concerns across the University. I think in all of those ways, it helped me be ready for the position of ombuds. I hadn’t thought about it, but when it was offered to me, I began to think, well, I really could do that. 

Q: Despite the similarities to your other administrative positions, this role is a little bit different, mostly because you can’t speak specifically about initiatives or cases.
A: Well, it is. It’s a role where privacy is at the center of it and confidentiality. But it’s one that, in the large, can be talked about. There is a need for a university to have confidential spaces and places where people can be listened to without any concern for retaliation or any concern that the issues will go beyond these four walls. 

Q: It seems that in order to be successful in this job, you have to be a good listener. Have you learned how to listen in a different way?
A: Yes. And I have learned to listen more attentively. The obligation to be neutral I think forces one into a different space. One has to be empathetic and supportive in certain ways without becoming an advocate, because there are not only two sides to a story, there could be three or four or many more. One of the challenges in this position is getting people to think about the fact that there are multiple positions and multiple issues and then helping them figure out where they want to be, how they want to deal with that multiplicity.

Q: Have there been instances in this position that have really challenged you, where you’ve had to dig deep professionally?
A: Very often, people come to us very late in a conflict and this is a definite challenge because if you come very late in a conflict, things have been said, things have been done that cannot really be undone very effectively or people have taken a position and feel that they have become so wedded to it that it’s impossible for them to dial back. So, one of the challenges is really this question of timing and perhaps sometimes cases come here almost too late to be very effectively resolved. There are a variety of cases and issues that come to the office where the kinds of resolution that individuals are hoping for is really not possible. Not everyone or not every situation can be resolved to the satisfaction of the individuals involved. And that’s difficult both for the individuals and it’s difficult for us here in the office. One of the issues that comes up regularly are concerns over the denial of tenure or the tenure process and this is something that we can and do talk with individuals about. The office, however, has no power to affect outcomes in either that kind of a case or even in other sorts of cases. There are certain kinds of frustrations that are built into the operation of the office. We don’t want to have any power. It’s necessary that this office operate the way that it does for it to give the kind of private enclosed space for people to air their concerns. But if people are coming to this office and want us to affect a certain kind of outcome, that is not what we do.

Q: Is anything binding?
A: This is an informal process. There are no binding recommendations. We cannot force people to do anything. And this is one of the reasons why people should come to the office, because people who come in to consult us about a situation are not going to be told by us, ‘You must do X. This is what you must do.’ We can explain, ‘Your options are A, B, and C. Let us help you think through what those options entail. Let us help you think through what your wishes are, where you want to be at the end of this process or what it is you would wish to have happen. And then let’s think through what are the costs and benefits of those options.’ Then the individual has to decide what it is that he or she wishes to do. We try to deescalate conflicts, to try to help people figure out how they can work through a situation. Our aim is to try to solve problems as low down or as close to the ground level as possible so that the next option is not a lawsuit, a fistfight.

Q: What do you enjoy about this work?
A: Well, I enjoy helping people think through a problematic situation and come to a place where they feel empowered to do something effective about it. It’s empowering people to think through and work through their position and to make the best choices.

Q: What is your wish for the Office of the Ombudsman?
A: I would like more people around the University to take advantage of the ombud’s office rather than worrying in silence, or make a decision that they might regret because they’re not aware of what
their options are.

To learn more about the Office of the Ombudsman, go to www.upenn.edu/ombudsman or call 215-898-8261 to make an appointment.

Lynn Hollen Lees