The mission of the Mississippi State University Office of the Ombudsman is to provide a confidential place for members of the MSU community to voice concerns, develop options and problem-solve. The Ombudsman also provides information to the University’s officials on general trends and patterns of complaints so that problems may be prevented from escalating or recurring.
Through its mission, the Mississippi State University Office of the Ombudsman helps further the University’s strategic objectives by promoting a culture that is ethical, civil, in which differences can be resolved, and where mutual understanding is created through respectful dialogue and fair process.
The Office of the Ombudsman provides assistance in resolving problems and conflicts. It is a confidential, independent, impartial, and informal resource available to all members of the MSU community.
The Office of the Ombudsman was established and chartered in fall 2014 by President Mark Keenum and Provost and Executive Vice President Jerry Gilbert working with a committee composed of representatives of the administration, Staff Counsel, Faculty Senate, University Legal Counsel, and Human Resources. The purpose of the Office of the Ombudsman is to provide a place within the University that will promote a collaborative environment for surfacing concerns and resolving conflicts that may arise.
Purpose and Scope of Services
The Ombudsman performs a variety of functions in carrying out his/her duties and responsibilities. They include: listening and providing a respectful, “safe,” and “humanized” place within the University for individuals to discuss problems; helping individuals to clarify concerns and develop options; explaining policies and procedures of the University; providing referrals to other offices; coaching visitors on how to help themselves; assessing problems by gathering data and seeking the perspectives of others; engaging in shuttle diplomacy; conducting structured mediations or facilitating conversations; and other measures consistent with the mission of the Ombuds' Office. These services are provided at no cost to the individual.
After meeting with the Ombudsman, some visitors may give permission to take an action that would reveal their identity. Others, however, may request that the Ombudsman not disclose information or take any action that might risk having their identity revealed. The Ombudsman will not disclose identifiable information or issues raised without the permission of the visitor to the office, except in very limited circumstances. The Ombudsman may take any number of steps towards responsibly addressing concerns raised. However, the Office is empowered to provide informal assistance only. Formal actions are the purview of other University officers.
Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice
The practice of the Mississippi State University Office of the Ombudsman adheres to the Code of Ethics and the Standards of Practice of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA). This Charter adopts and incorporates by reference the IOA Standards of Practice, IOA Code of Ethics, and IOA Best Practices. The Ombudsman shall be a member of the IOA and remain current in the practice principles and techniques through the IOA.
Individuals who seek or utilize the services of the MSU Office of the Ombudsman will be referred to as “visitors”.
In keeping with the IOA documents referenced above there are four fundamental principles which define the Ombudsman practice at Mississippi State University:
- Strict confidentiality is essential to the Ombudsman function and helps create a safe place for visitors to voice concerns, evaluate issues, and identify options.
- The Ombudsman does not disclose the identity of visitors to the office or the content of conversations unless permission has been given to do so by the visitor except in very limited circumstances.
- If a visitor has given permission to do so, the Ombudsman may disclose information to other offices or individuals whose help is necessary to explore or resolve a problem.
- A visitor’s confidential disclosure to the Ombudsman is strictly off-the-record and does not constitute a formal report of wrongdoing. Thus, conversations with the Ombudsman do not constitute notice to the University of any claims a visitor may have. Moreover, such conversations do not toll or extend any time limits by which notice of claims must be provided to the University.
- The University will make every effort to protect the confidentiality of the Office. The University will not ask the Ombudsman to testify on the University’s behalf in internal or external proceedings, and will take appropriate steps to protect the Ombudsman from subpoena by others to the extent allowed by law.
- The only exception to maintaining confidentiality is where there appears to be an imminent risk of serious harm to an individual or individuals or whether the breach of confidentiality is required by law.
- The Office functions outside existing administrative structures and reports directly to the President and the Provost and Executive Vice President of Mississippi State University for administrative and budgetary purposes.
- The Ombudsman neither compels other offices to take specific action nor receives compulsory orders about how to approach a particular issue.
- The Office complements but does not duplicate existing grievance procedures and compliance channels such as EthicsPoint, line-management, or the offices of Human Resources, Equal Opportunity, Legal Counsel, Internal Audit, Mississippi State University Police, or Regulatory Compliance.
- The Ombudsman has no authority to establish, change, or set aside any rule or policy of the University, nor may the Ombudsman override the decisions of the University’s officials.
- The Ombudsman has access to all University officials and records as needed to carry out the functions of the Office.
- The Ombudsman takes all steps to avoid conflicts of interest, whether actual or perceived.
- The Ombudsman provides objective assessments of concerns brought to the Ombudsman office.
- As a third-party neutral, the Ombudsman is an advocate for equity, fair process, and the fair administration of process. The Ombudsman does not, however, take sides on behalf of any individual, cause, or dispute.
- The Ombudsman takes into consideration the rights of all parties, as well as the welfare of the University and the University community.
- The Ombudsman provides informal, off-the record assistance only.
- The Ombudsman maintains only anonymous, aggregate data. Formal records are not created, nor are personally identifiable documents preserved. Informal notes may be temporarily created only insofar as they are necessary for case management.
- The Ombudsman has no authority to accept legal notice or make decisions on behalf of the University. For those wishing to go on-record, the Ombudsman makes referrals to appropriate formal channels so that individuals may make informed choices about which process is best for them to pursue.
- The Ombudsman may request data from and explore a concern with any University official. However, the Ombudsman does not conduct formal investigations or participate in formal actions. The following are also outside the purview of the Office: adjudicating cases, acting as an advocate or witness in any case inside or outside the University; keeping case records for the University; assessing wrongdoing or innocence; determining sanctions; and making, changing, or setting aside any rule, policy, or administrative decision.
Authority and Limits of the Office of the Ombudsman
Authority of the Ombudsman Office
The Office of the Ombudsman has the authority to inquire about any issues that concern the University and affect any member of the University community. Inquiries may arise from individuals contacting the Ombudsman or from his direct observation of an issue. The Ombudsman has the responsibility to provide upward information to the University administration concerning trends and to provide recommendations for change in areas of concern.
The Ombudsman shall have the authority to contact any member of the University community to gather information concerning an issue, to help mediate and resolve issues, to bring issues before those officials of the University who are in authority, and work to expedite and resolve administrative issues in an informal manner.
Involvement in Issues
The Office of the Ombudsman shall reserve the right to cease involvement in any issue where continued participation would be considered inappropriate for any reason.
Meeting with Visitors and Others
The Ombudsman has the authority to provide a range of options to the visitor, including informal and formal remedies. When considered appropriate, relative to resolving issues, or improving policies, rules or procedures, the Ombudsman may purpose such changes to the University administration. The Office of the Ombudsman does not have any authority to require any remedies or sanctions or enforce or change any University policy, rule, or procedure.
Outside Legal Counsel
In the discharging of the duties of the Office of the Ombudsman, situations may arise that would require the services of an outside legal counsel. The University will provide for such services for the Office of the Ombudsman.
Limitations on the Authority of the Ombudsman Office
Receiving Notice for the University
Communication with the Office of the Ombudsman shall not constitute notice to the University. This includes allegations that may be perceived to be a violation of laws, regulations, or policies such as sexual harassment, issues covered by whistleblower policy, or incidents subject to reporting under the Clery Act. Although the office may receive such allegations, it is not considered a “campus security authority” as defined by the Clery Act or a “responsible employee” for purposes of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.To this end, the office is not required to report potential violations of law or University policy to the University.
If the visitor desires to place the University on notice or the visitor desires to file a formal report, the Ombudsman will refer the visitor the appropriate Mississippi State University office for administrative or formal grievance processes.
Investigations and Processes
The Ombudsman Office shall not conduct formal investigations of any kind nor shall they willingly participate in any formal dispute process or outside agency complaints or lawsuits, either on behalf of a visitor or on behalf of the University.
The Ombudsman Office does not create or maintain records for the University about individual matters. Any notes taken and other materials related to a matter will be maintained in a secure location and manner and they will be destroyed upon conclusion of the matter by the Ombudsman Office.
The Ombudsman Office shall not act as an advocate for any party in a dispute or represent the University or a visitor to the office. The Ombudsman Office acts as a neutral entity on the campus and does not take sides in a dispute.
The Ombudsman Office shall not have the authority to adjudicate, impose sanction, or to enforce or change university policies or rules.
Conflict of Interest
All resemblance of conflict of interest shall be avoided by the Ombudsman Office. A conflict of interest occurs when the Ombudsman’s private interests, real or perceived, supersede or compete with his or her dedication to the impartial and independent nature of the role of their job. When a conflict of interest exists, the Ombudsman Office shall take all steps necessary to disclose and/or to avoid the conflict.
Protection of Visitors to the Office of the Ombudsman
All members of the Mississippi State University community have the right to consult with the Office of the Ombudsman without fear of retaliation or reprisal from anyone. The Ombudsman and the University will work together to create policies to protect the visitor from any negative consequence for using the Office of the Ombudsman, and retaliation of any kind will not be tolerated.
Autonomy of the Office of the Ombudsman
The Office of the Ombudsman will report directly to the University President and the Provost and Executive Vice President for administrative budgetary purposes only. The Office of the Ombudsman and its staff should be protected from retaliation (i.e., removal of the Office or the Ombudsman, or reduction of the Ombudsman's Office Budget or other resources) by any persons who may be the subject of a complaint or inquiry.
Charters from the Omuds Offices’ of the following universities were liberally drawn from in the writing of the above document.
- Boston University
- Columbia University
- Univeristy of Connecticut
- Auburn University
- University of California, Irvine
- University of Central Florida