UMD's Faculty Ombuds Officers: Past and Present, Looking Toward the Future
By: Dylan Lewis
This past January, Dr. Karen M. O'Brien began her tenure as the university’s faculty ombuds officer, a position previously held by Professor Emerita Dr. Ellin Scholnick, who held the position for over ten years. As ombuds officer, Dr. O’Brien will serve as a neutral, impartial, and confidential party for faculty and administrators to assist with resolving work-related conflicts and concerns.
Being faculty ombuds officer is a difficult task because of the nature of many of the disputes, and because of the position’s vital commitment to neutrality and confidentiality. Dr. O’Brien’s predecessor in the position, Dr. Scholnick, joined the faculty of the psychology department in 1967, served as associate provost for faculty affairs from 1997 to 2010, and took over as faculty ombuds officer from 2010 to 2022. For Scholnick, her long tenure in the position was difficult but rewarding. “Ombuds is great for people who feel called to social justice,” she said. Having previously served in faculty affairs as an administrator who wrote and developed policies for faculty members, her later role as ombuds officer helped her see the outcome and impact of those policies, especially on new or vulnerable faculty members. “What’s fair? Are the policies fair?” are some of the questions that arose in dealing with many of the cases that came before her.
Scholnick added that one of the difficult aspects of the position is assisting people who are distressed, especially because work-related conflict can be extremely overwhelming. The greatest challenge is finding a way to help them, but also for them to be able to come up with strategies to help resolve problems on their own when there is not a clear administrative solution. “UMD has so many networks. Solving problems means entering networks, knowing people, and accessing resources around the university,” Scholnick said.
Her main objective throughout her tenure in the position was to work on simplifying and streamlining some of the policies so that the processes around the university are more clear and therefore less likely to cause conflict or misunderstandings. One of the areas where she still has concerns is with professional track (PTK) faculty members. The trend in higher education is to employ more and more faculty members off the tenure track, and these positions are becoming long-term career choices at UMD. Some of the university policies, however, are currently written without consideration for the diverse roles of PTK faculty members, and this creates misunderstanding and conflict between tenured/tenure-track (TTK) faculty members and PTK faculty members. One of the necessary goals for faculty administrators going forward, according to Dr. Scholnick, should be the creation and adoption of clearer administrative structures for PTK faculty members around promotion, performance, and shared governance.
Like Dr. Scholnick, the current faculty ombuds officer Dr. O’Brien is a longtime Terp. She has served as a faculty member in UMD’s Department of Psychology for more than 25 years, and she held the position of associate chair for undergraduate studies in that department for the past four years. Regarding her background as a counseling psychologist, O’Brien emphasized that she has “experience providing clients with a neutral space to discuss concerns, be heard, brainstorm possibilities, and receive support,” and that she also deeply understands “the ethical issues related to confidentiality that are central to the role of faculty ombuds officer at the University of Maryland.”
One of O’Brien’s biggest goals in the position “is to contribute to a respectful, equitable, healthy work environment where all can achieve excellence in research, teaching, and service to others.” Currently she is reading literature on professional conduct in university workspaces to assist in cases that involve instances of bullying or disrespect among colleagues. Regarding the position, O’Brien said “One of the challenges that I have experienced is hearing about really painful and difficult situations facing some faculty at UMD. The challenges of the position are balanced by the meaningfulness associated with providing assistance to faculty who are experiencing problems at work.”
When asked about what they want UMD faculty members to know about them and the position of faculty ombuds officer, both Scholnick and O’Brien emphasized that the ombuds officer is a neutral party, an ally for vulnerable faculty members, and someone who can help any faculty member solve work-related problems in a safe and confidential space. In thinking about her new role and future plans, O’Brien said she is “excited about the opportunity to contribute to the university in new and meaningful ways, to assist those who are experiencing challenges, and to identify trends and contribute to policy changes where needed.” And of course, “Go TERPS!”
For information about the faculty ombuds officer, visit the UMD Ombuds Services website.