Need an Impartial Sounding Board? Meet the Drexel Ombuds

There are countless resources at Drexel University for Dragons who need someone to talk through problems with. For students, there are professors, resident assistants, advisors and counselors, and for faculty and staff, supervisors, department heads and human resources representatives, just to name a few.

But where can the University community turn when they want to look outside the usual suspects? Who can be an impartial resource and sounding board to give advice in confidence?

Drexel's current Ombuds, Kirk Heilbrun, PhD, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychology, has held the position since 2018. He discussed his position and what he wants Dragons to know in this Q&A.

Q: How did you come to take on this role of Ombuds for the University? Why is the Ombuds an important resource for the University community?

A: Well, I think for any university community, it's important to have someone in the role of basically an independent source of information and consultation. Sometimes there are questions or disagreements, even disputes that arise in the context of any university, whether it's in a class or with a supervisor or in other circumstances. And most of the time, those disagreements and disputes get worked out between the parties involved. But occasionally they don't. Occasionally, someone might feel like they're not perhaps an equal party.

So, for instance, if a graduate student was working in a lab and was supervised by a professor, then there's an imbalance of power. And occasionally a graduate student might feel like the problem is significant. [They’ll say], “I can't really work this out because I can't go to my professor, who is also my supervisor and my mentor, and is going to write me a letter to get a job. … I also don't want to talk to the program director or the department head or the dean. I'd just like to have an independent sounding board.” That's what I try to do.

Why me? That's a good question. The Provost at the time, Brian Blake, PhD, asked me if I would consider doing it. And I said I would think about it, decided that I would give it a try. I am trained as a clinical psychologist, but I know the difference between providing therapy services and just listening to people and trying my best to help them out.

I'm also a former [Psychology] Department head. … So I understand how things work in terms of who might be involved and how problems might arise. I'm reasonably familiar with the structure of the University, so I know how things happen in classes and in the lab and so on. I have my own graduate students and I teach courses that are both graduate and undergraduate courses. So I know how disagreements can come up, and I can listen to folks and help them develop a plan.

I don't sit down with third parties and say, “I'm the Ombuds. I'm here to help. Can we do this?” But I do talk to people themselves about what they might do. If they're not familiar with the structure of the University, I can help them out. People sometimes want to know: who do I ask if I don't get an answer that I like? Who’s higher up the chain of command? I can describe that for them.

Q: Do you think most people at the University know who you are and what your role is?

A: Well, I think a number of people don't know about it. I have a webpage which was started when I began this position in January of 2018. That comes up if you do a search, but some don't know off the top of their head. And so, if you're looking for “Who is the Drexel Ombuds?” you can find me fairly easy. But if you ask other people or you just rely on what you know about the structure of Drexel, not necessarily.

It's something that a number of people have figured out, because I usually talk to one or two people a month. Sometimes I talk to people who aren't able to resolve their situation, and I will talk to them a number of times. Most of the time it’s one or two conversations. If someone contacts me through email, then I get back to them and we set something up.

Before we were all doing this remotely, I would meet with some people in person. But others preferred to speak by phone. I've done one or two of these by Zoom these days. That works fine, too. I'll probably offer that to people even after we're back in person.

People who contact me have a right to privacy. This is a confidential conversation they're having with me, with one exception: a Drexel faculty member, I'm a mandated Title IX reporter, and so if I hear anything that implicates Title IX, then I contact our [Office of Equality and Diversity]. I let people know about that single exception in the beginning of a conversation.

Q: Tell me about when there is the opportunity or the desire for you to kind of become a mediator.

A: One approach to serving as an Ombuds does include mediation with third parties. We don’t use that model at Drexel, for a couple reasons. I’m not trained in doing mediation, so in the rare instance that mediation is needed I would advise the University to engage a trained mediator. But for the most part, the things that people bring to me do not yet need mediation. Often there are other options that have not yet been tried. So, I typically recommend to people that we try those first. And most people don't come back, so I assume (without doing formal follow-up) that their plan has worked in some instances.

Q: At what frequency do members of the Drexel community reach out to you?

A: It really varies. The periods when there are relatively more requests happen around April, May, and early June with issues related to graduating and that sort of thing. There are some disputes that come up around that. Aside from that, there's not really a period that's particularly likely to get more referrals or fewer referrals. It averages out to maybe one or two requests per month. But there have been times when I would get four or five in a month and there are times when it would go for a couple months without any. So, it's hard to say.

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

A: If someone was adamant that they needed mediation, then I would say that's something that I can't do—but would arrange to see that that's done. But I would also say to the person before I do that, “Are you sure you want to take this step?” Approaches like mediation and litigation are more public and formal, while my approach has been more private and informal.

But for the most part, people seek me out for things that I'm usually able to help them with. It usually takes about an hour. I listen carefully and then start asking some questions. “Has this happened? Have you tried that? Has the other person done this?” People can use this conversation, and it seems to help in many instances. At least I can say that people often tell me that our conversation led them to think about the situation differently, and offer possibilities for addressing it.

Q: Is it mostly students that reach out? When faculty staff are the ones reaching out, do you engage with those audiences differently?

A: I am available to anyone in the Drexel community. Occasionally I talk with faculty or staff members, but more often it’s students, particularly graduate students.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: Graduate students sometimes report behavior by a supervisor or mentor that seems problematic, but they are reluctant to use other means of addressing these—formal complaints to a department, a college, to Human Resources, to their advisor—because of concern that it might affect their graduate training and future job prospects. They are often very dependent on faculty mentors for funding, letters of recommendation, research supervision and publication credit.

The Ombuds just offers them a private opportunity to think carefully, and perhaps identify and weigh different options, before responding to a problem.

Q: Is there a typical reason why faculty and staff might reach out?

A: Some of the same kinds of power dynamics and imbalances might be at play for faculty and staff. People might perceive that it’s risky to speak up or formally challenge a higher-up. They might want another perspective in weighing their options. Sometimes people who talk with me have done things that may have exacerbated the problem, so I might comment on that and ask about other approaches and whether they have tried them.

Q: Is there anything else you would say about how your role has changed due to the pandemic? Or it might change, especially as more people come back to living, learning and working on campus?

A: I haven't noticed that more people have contacted me during the pandemic. Probably fewer, for whatever reasons. But some of the problems have been related to COVID-19 and the consequences of being locked down, unable to travel, working and teaching remotely. I do hope that we can take some of what we’ve learned since March 2020 and use it after we’re all back together in person.

Q: Tell me about how and why you work directly with President Fry as part of your role.

A: President John Fry and Provost Paul Jensen, PhD are both committed to having an Ombuds available to the Drexel community. I talk with both of them four times a year about the work I’ve done as Ombuds. They do not ask about specific details—nobody’s privacy would be compromised—but they do want to know two things. First, is this service continuing to be available to the University community, and functioning to address concerns that arise? Second, are there problems I see from this work that would have implications for the larger university, and should be addressed in case they are more systemic?

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

A: Obviously there are many instances—a problem, a dispute, or whatever—in which you don't need somebody like an Ombuds. Reasonable people can usually work out such problems, and there are many other resources at Drexel for addressing them if that doesn’t happen. But sometimes people don't feel that they can sit down with the other person and work it out. Maybe it's a power imbalance. Maybe they think that the person is not being reasonable. Perhaps they don’t want to use other mechanisms for dispute resolution at Drexel, or don’t know about them. So sometimes it’s helpful to have a chance for a private conversation with an impartial individual who tries to help them think through and address a problem. That sort of circumstance might lead someone to contact an Ombuds. Sometimes people feel kind of stuck, and conversations like this can help them feel unstuck.

Q: It's like University therapy…

A: In some ways, yes. If the goal is to think carefully, consider options, and make a good decision, it’s like any time when we have a challenging problem and we want to avail ourselves of anything that might help. Because we’ve tried, and it hasn’t improved enough to this point.

So the Ombuds can sometimes be another voice, another chance to describe and consider carefully, a private opportunity for a perspective on a specific problem.