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The Drexel Ombuds is Here to Listen and Help

March 11, 2024

Communication with human head speech

Drexel University offers a variety of resources for Dragons in need of guidance — think professors, advisers and various offices for students, and department heads, supervisors and human resources for faculty and professional staff.

But there’s one person who can provide unbiased and confidential counsel for all: the Drexel Ombuds.

Drexel Ombuds Kirk Heilbrun, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, has held the position since 2018. Over the years, he’s met with Dragons to listen, offer advice, talk through future actions and connect them with University resources.

In this Q&A, he described what he can do for people looking for help, why it’s important for the University to have this impartial resource and what he wants Dragons to know about this position.

Q: What is an ombuds? How would you describe your role and your work?

A: The position of ombuds is independent of the rest of the University, in that I provide one or more confidential meetings as needed to talk about how to resolve a problem experienced at Drexel. It might involve the chance to talk through the problem in some detail and learn more about existing resources. It often includes the chance to weigh different options, coming from someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in the outcome (but I do want people have their best chance to resolve a conflict or difficulty). It might include encouraging someone else at Drexel to meet with you, although I don’t join such meetings myself. At the very least, it gives you the chance to think about different possibilities when you’re feeling uncertain or stuck.

You can reach me by email ( and I’ll return the message within a day. I offer the chance to meet in person, by telephone or by Zoom. It’s whatever someone prefers — and we can usually schedule something within a day or two of our first contact.

Q: Why is the Ombuds an important resource for the University community?

A: Any university community needs someone in the role of an independent source of information and consultation for questions, disagreements and disputes. Things usually get worked out between the parties involved, but occasionally they don't. That's when I try to be an independent sounding board so I can listen to folks and help them develop a plan. I don't work with third parties (such as the other person reportedly involved in the dispute). Instead, I talk to people who want to consider what they might do. If they're not familiar with the structure of the University, I can help.

Q: Students, faculty and professional staff might have very different reasons and life experiences when reaching out. For starters, how do you work with undergraduate and graduate students?

A: Undergraduate and graduate students can have different priorities and concerns, certainly. First, I try to listen carefully to what someone is describing as a problem, and help them identify possible responses. During this process of listening and exploring, the person will usually have the chance to focus on their concern in depth. This can be helpful by itself, because sometimes possible courses of action begin to occur that might not have been considered. It isn’t my role to tell people what to do — but I try to help them weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different responses, develop a plan and carry it out. If I think something is very unlikely to work, or could have adverse consequences to them that they hadn’t considered, I say that. While undergraduate and graduate students often differ in their concerns, they both usually find this process helpful.

Q: What about faculty and professional staff members?

A: They have different stages of life and career and often different priorities. But I take a similar approach: listening, helping to identify and weigh different options, and working to develop a plan. If someone can’t tell how a given plan will work, that’s understandable. It may mean that our planning process involves contingencies, and we won’t know whether we need a Plan B until we know how Plan A has worked. This could mean that we have another meeting.

Q: Are there any things that people sometimes reach out to you for that you maybe can't help with?

A: I am not a mediator, but I can advise the University to engage one if needed. But most of the people who come to me do not yet need mediation, and I typically recommend other options first. My approach has always been more private and informal, and mediation is more public and formal.

There are other times when people want help because they are in a financial dispute with Drexel or have reportedly violated a University policy (for instance, something related to academic integrity). My job in those circumstances is to try to ensure that they receive fair consideration, including being clearly informed about the basis for the University’s action and having their appeal heard. In some of these instances, the outcome doesn’t change — but hopefully the process will seem fairer.

Q: How would you describe your place in the University’s resource ecosystem?

A: I am one of many options people have for resolving problems and disputes that arise in the Drexel community. I try to identify other options if the person has not considered them, and to help them prioritize which options they use and when.

We’ll have a confidential conversation, but I'm a mandated Title IX reporter and will contact Drexel’s Office for Institutional Equity and Inclusive Culture (EIC) if I hear anything that implicates Title IX. I let people know about that single exception in the beginning of a conversation.

Q: Is there anything else you would say about what you have seen and learned and/or how your role has changed since you started in 2018?

A: There is a fairly stable number of people who will use the Ombuds’ services. It’s usually between 15 and 20 per year, and that number doesn’t change much depending on other circumstances. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, the number was similar (although the content was affected by the pandemic conditions). Since early October 2023, with the tragic world events unfolding and some on college campuses feeling outraged, others unsafe, and many more polarized than before, there hasn’t been a change in the number of people talking with me. So there is a need for a position like this in a university community, but Drexel also needs the other sources of support and problem-solving assistance that are available.

Q: Over the years, have you noticed any recurring patterns or frequency for when members of the Drexel community reach out to you?

A: Some concerns are related to graduation, so there are often more requests in April, May and early June. Aside from that, I haven’t noticed patterns related to when or how often people contact me.

Q: Why would you encourage the community to utilize your office and yourself, especially in these unusual times?

A: There are many times when an ombuds is not needed — if people can work out problems or can use other resources at the University. But sometimes people don't feel that they can work it out with the other person (if there’s a power imbalance, or they think the other party isn’t being reasonable, or they don’t know about or want to use other mechanisms for dispute resolution, for example). That’s when it can be helpful to have a private conversation with someone who listens and tries to help them think through and address a problem.

Q: You’re now onto your sixth year in this position. What made you originally want to take this on after your previous roles and experiences at Drexel?

A: I was a faculty member at MCP Hahnemann before the 2002 merger with Drexel, and have been on the Drexel faculty since then. I’ve been a department head, have taught undergraduate and graduate students and have graduate students in my lab. I appreciate the chance to make a difference with a fairly brief interaction, and hope that my knowledge of the University community and its resources can help people resolve some of the challenges that can arise in any organization.

Q: What are some of the biggest takeaways from your experience as Ombuds? How have you grown or changed in this role?

A: I didn’t assume this position with the expectation that I’d be able to help everyone solve all problems. I haven’t been disappointed in that respect. Doing a good job as Ombuds can mean promoting fairness, even when there’s an outcome that is disappointing to the person who contacted me. There’s a scholarly literature in “procedural justice” that tells us that people are more satisfied with decisions — even those with outcomes that disappoint them — when they feel they’ve had input into the process, and they’ve been recognized and heard. My goal in those instances is to help improve the process, even if the outcome differs from what a person has sought.

Q: How do you work directly with Drexel leadership as part of your role?

A: I work with the president and provost, who are both committed to having an ombuds available to the Drexel community. We meet quarterly to discuss the work I’ve done as the Drexel Ombuds, without going into specific details or compromising anyone’s privacy. It’s more to discuss any systemic problems I see that could have larger implications for the University.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

A: It’s a privilege to work as the Drexel Ombuds. I try to be helpful in the ways I’ve described. I hope to contribute to the options available to individuals in the University community for problem solving and effective decision-making related to disputes and concerns that arise.