Thomas Metzloff Explains His Role as University Ombuds

Law professor takes role after position revised in faculty handbook

New faculty ombuds Thomas Metzloff:
New faculty ombuds Thomas Metzloff: "This is a big, complicated institution. The faculty and administration are more varied than ever." Photo by Duke Photography

Let’s start with what an ombuds isn’t. It’s not an arbitrator who hears two sides and makes a decision. It’s not a mediator who looks to find a consensus position that satisfies both parties.

What the ombuds is, says law professor Tom Metzloff who took on the position at Duke July 1, is an important resource to help a faculty member with a grievance successfully navigate the multitude of dispute resolution channels at Duke.

The office sounds straight-forward, but widespread confusion about the position’s role led the Academic Council to revise the Faculty Handbook last year to clarify the ombuds responsibilities and to better reflect current practices.

Metzloff is well trained for the job, having served as past chair of the Faculty Hearing Committee and being a well-known academic specialist in the study of dispute resolution.  But he says he understands why the position’s authority appears ambiguous to outsiders.

“Part of it is the word – ombuds. It’s a strange Scandinavian word,” Metzloff said in an interview in his law school office.  “Ombuds is not a verb. We can arbitrate or mediate, but we don’t ombuds. 

“That reflects a certain ambiguity in the position.  The ombuds is in the constellation of processes for dispute resolution, but it’s not as well defined as the mediator or arbitrator.”

It’s not an arbitrator, who follows a clearly defined set of procedures to made a decision between two sides.  But neither is it a mediator, one who has a neutral role “to help parties explore a resolution by finding a common interest,” Metzloff said.

Instead, the ombuds most often serves as a navigator to one or more parties involved in a dispute, Metzloff said.  While sometimes he will help faculty explore opportunities early in the process, more often his responsibility will be to guide faculty or instructional staff to one of the several different avenues on campus for dispute resolution, whether that is the Faculty Hearing Committee or through Human Resources or other channels.

“Ombuds often are found in large, complex organizations such as Duke,” said Metzloff, who as part of the job will join the professional ombuds professional organization and receive certificate training.

“The main role of the ombuds is to identify the best procedure for a specific situation. There are many dispute resolutions procedures at Duke.  The ombuds will help a faculty member navigate these different channels, but I won’t be doing it as an advocate for any individual.”

Metzloff joined the Duke faculty in 1985, and with that longevity, he has significant knowledge of how the university works. 

“It’s important for an ombuds to know the institution so they can best navigate its various channels.  But as long as I’ve been here, it still surprises me how big it is.  Everytime I dig into a different part of the university, I find new rules.  Existing rules for faculty reviews, for example, can be very, very different around the university.  And in each unit, there are variations in practices, some of which are specifically expressed, but some are just understood.  These are things I’m going to need to learn more about.”

In revising the ombuds responsibilities, the university acknowledged that its policies and practices needed to catch up to its increasing growth and diversity, Metzloff said.  He noted that when he arrived more than 30 years ago, law school administrators were predominantly faculty members rotating through the positions.

“This is a big, complicated institution. The faculty and administration are more varied than ever.  We have more faculty, more non-regular rank faculty, and the administration is more professional.  The distance between the two has increased.  That doesn’t mean it’s us versus them, or that it’s a bad thing.  But it does mean there are more potential points of conflict.”

And as the faculty has become less homogeneous, the university has to ensure “that with a more diverse faculty, wider concerns get a voice.”

“When you have a more diverse faculty, there will be small actions, which are short of actionable discrimination but which nevertheless reflect insensitivity. Faculty are concerned that these be recognized as problems that need attention, and the ombuds should be part of that,” Metzloff said.  “In a perfect world, a faculty member with a concern will see talking to the ombuds as a legitimate way of raising an issue to resolve it without having to resort to litigation.”

In short, in giving renewed attention to the position, the Academic Council is sending a positive message to the faculty, Metzloff said.

“The message here is this is one way we can hear you.  It’s not the only way, but we want these conversations to happen. We want to be able to address issues and concerns early and quickly before they fester and rise to a level of a problem that becomes challenging to resolve.”