The University of Michigan gained a new Ombuds this year, and no, that’s not an acronym! “Ombudsman” is an old Scandinavian term for an independent official who hears concerns and works for fair solutions.
Tom Lehker began work as the Ombuds for U-M students in January and accepted the permanent position on September 1, 2010. As Ombuds, he meets with students in all degree programs and levels to hear questions and complaints about the functioning of the university. Lehker has been in student affairs for many years, predominantly at the University of Michigan and also at Georgetown University. He welcomed the position of Ombuds as a great opportunity to work with students in a new way and to effect positive organizational change throughout the institution.
As Lehker says, “I will talk to anybody about anything!” Most commonly, students come in when they’re experiencing conflict with the university, whether academic or non-academic. They may not know where else to turn, or need a safe place to talk about their situation. Often students are looking for proactive ways to address a problem before it gets any bigger. Other students may feel entangled in red tape and need help understanding university policies and procedures.
The Ombuds provides informal dispute resolution, resources and referrals, and helps students consider their options. Four important foundational principles guide all of Lehker’s work: confidentiality, neutrality, informality, and independence. Conversations are confidential and the student is always in control of if and how information is shared (unless there is imminent threat of risk of harm to self or others). And unlike many other institutional processes, the Ombuds is independent and does not act as an advocate for either side. Lehker sees his role instead as an advocate for fairness and consistency of treatment.
In addition to working directly with individuals, the Ombuds can also have an impact on the University.
“I believe that the kind of conflicts and disputes that come to the Office of the Ombuds can truly be gifts to the university," Lehker says. "Students may identify systems, policies, and procedures that can be improved. Part of my job is to help the university critically examine what it does and how it does it, in order to promote responsive organizational change.”
The Ombuds office can be a resource for any student who feels that he or she has not been listened to and needs help figuring out what to do next. And there’s almost never a wait time of more than a day or two! Just contact Ombuds-DSA@umich.edu or (734) 763–3545. Or stop by 6015 Fleming Building at 503 Thompson Street, next to the Michigan Union.