“There was a clear need for an independent third party,” says Weijnen looking back on her first months in this role. Erasmus University’s very first ombudsperson set up shop on 1 June.1
Staff members and students prefer to set an appointment off campus. This offers more privacy and reduces your risk of running into a colleague or acquaintance in the waiting room. We’re meeting off campus for this interview too. “I do that quite often,” says Weijnen. “Most people want to meet in private: outside the university, where no one can see them. That’s fine with me, and I don’t mind accommodating them in this matter.”
What kind of things do you do as an EUR ombudsperson?
“This position was actually conceived by several universities working together; it’s part of a national pilot project. We’ll be jointly determining which shape it should take exactly. An ombudsperson occupies an independent position within the university organisation. The main difference with a confidential counsellor is that the ‘ombuds’ is authorised to look into cases, complaints and other incidents.”
“After just over four months, I feel fairly confident in saying there’s a real need for an independent party whom people can turn to with their problems. And I think this independent position makes a fundamental difference. And in some cases, simply talking something through can help people back on their feet again – what they needed most of all was a listening ear.”
“In this job, I encounter a lot of emotions: many people sit across from me with tears in their eyes. I try to listen to them with empathy and determine whether it’s an issue that can be addressed. In addition, I try to determine whether it may point towards a more structural problem. If I continue to feel this may be the case, I’m authorised to launch an inquiry. That’s the most substantial instrument at my disposal, since it results in a report and I’m expected to issue an assessment of the matter.”
“Still, I’m not afraid to tell people: I feel bad for you, but it is what it is and I can’t help you any further. EUR has a wonderful network of confidential counsellors. Everyone has his or her own role. However, the ombudsperson occupies a unique position, thanks to his or her independence and authority to mediate and investigate.”
Do you get a lot of people coming in?
“Yes, it’s busy. Taken individually, we’re talking about dozens of cases, but this includes larger ‘batches’ – a number of people who’ve contacted me about the same matter. These are broader issues that can easily relate to 200 people at a time.”
“I’m surprised about how long people can keep going until they cross a certain line. You find a lot of smart, assertive people working here who are truly sad, tense, hurt or ill when they contact me. They’ve tried all sorts of other things, but keep running into a brick wall. My independent position possibly makes it easier for them to take this step. I’m happy that I’m able to fulfil this role and give them hope. I can often identify ways for them to break the deadlock.
“The cases are very different, and I’m not just contacted by staff members. Students come to me with study-related problems – evaluations, for instance. International students mainly ask about practical matters. PhD candidates are often unhappy about how long their doctoral programme is taking, or because they’ve become stuck in a rut for reasons unclear to them.”
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A big difference between your position and that of confidential counsellor is that you’re authorised to initiate an inquiry. Have you done this already?
“I’m constantly investigating matters, but so far I haven’t launched a formal inquiry. Four months are basically too short to know for sure whether you’re dealing with a serious issue. I am staying on top of a number of questions, though. Right now I’m still orientating myself, of course. On the one hand, I want to get the right feel for the university as an organisation – although I take care to preserve the necessary distance.”
“The Executive Board cannot direct me in substantive matters. They are allowed to tell me that they aren’t pleased with a mediation or intervention on my part , but I’m not avoiding a confrontation anywhere if I feel it’s justified and necessary. While we could definitely run into each other in the course of our work, it wouldn’t be a good sign if we had ten clashes per year. It’s important to stay positive and constructive. As an ombuds, you’re at a risk of seeing issues everywhere you look, because people are constantly coming in with new problems. But it’s also important to keep an eye on everything that’s going well. You need to keep your eye on the ball.”
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Is the university a safe work environment?
“I presume so. While I don’t know for sure, it is something I want to contribute to. I occasionally see certain corners of the university that aren’t always safe, or where people don’t feel safe. In itself, the university is a very pleasant environment with a lot of positive energy, and a strong spirit of inquiry. Every organisation has its problems, but it becomes interesting when you encounter them all over the place. I regularly talk with the ombudspersons working at other universities. We discuss what kind of cases they’re working on, whether we run into similar issues and whether the problems are becoming worse. A year from now, we’ll know which issues are encountered at more than one university.”
The ombudsperson is expected to contribute to a ‘safe climate for work and study’. At the same time, our university has ordered investigators to look through staff members’ email inboxes. Some staff members clearly don’t feel very safe with this going on. Aren’t these two developments at odds with each other?
“Right now, I think it’s too early to make a statement on this matter, but it’s clear that it has had quite an emotional impact. I’ve parked my own email address outside EUR’s network, by the way. I consciously decided to do so even before my appointment was finalised. When I tell people they don’t have to worry when they contact me, I need to make good on this promise. The person sending the email also has a responsibility in this matter, but as the recipient I can guarantee that it’s secure at my end.”
- She did have a precedent though: a temporary ombudsperson whom staff members could turn to with questions during the reorganisation of the University Support Centre in 2015. ↩︎