Amendment would eliminate ombudsman term limitations

By Michael Berg

An amendment to the University Bylaws presented to the University Council Wednesday would eliminate the term limitations for the ombudsman if approved.

The Office of the Ombudsman serves members of the university community to help settle administrative, academic and individual complaints or grievances and also makes reports and recommendations to the president concerning complaints for which there has been no solution found, according to the University Bylaws.

The ombudsman is appointed to serve for one three-year term, and might be able to serve an additional two-year term if recommended by the Ombudsman Review/Search Committee and accepted by the president.

Under the new proposal, the ombudsman would be eligible for successive three-year terms, pending approval of the committee and the president, for an unlimited amount of terms.

Also under the new proposal, during the first and second year of the ombudsman’s term, a UC committee would evaluate the ombudsman’s performance and submit this to the president.

At the meeting, Linda Sons, professor of mathematical sciences, said there were historical reasons for the term limits on the office. “(In the late 1970’s) there had been a line in the bylaws that a person could not be reappointed,” Sons said. “In the carry-over that line was lost, so it was not in the constitution, even though it was intended to be there.”

By sheer accident an ombudsman was reappointed because the line was not there, Sons said. “We had someone (in the office) for a long period of time, and there was ill feeling that the office was not being carried out appropriately,” Sons said. “That’s why the bylaw is there.”

The ombudsman must keep a sense of objectivity and this could be a problem if the ombudsman is in the job for too long, Sons said. “When someone’s in such a position, they naturally make friends on campus,” she said. “Soon they become part of a group, and it becomes difficult to perform the functions they have to perform.”

University Ombudsman Tim Griffin disagreed in a memo to Joan Greening, chair of the UC committee that presented the proposal. “I do not believe that the best interests of the university are served when a competent incumbent is replaced due solely to a mandatory term limitation,” Griffin wrote.

Griffin said the term limits lead to people on the job who are not as effective as someone who has had time to gain experience. “NIU has had five people in the office in the last seven years,” he wrote. “During much of this time, the incumbent has been less than completely effective on the job. Almost half the time we have had someone ‘in training’.”

The lack of an assistant ombudsman at NIU also creates a problem, Griffin said. “Frankly, with no assistant ombudsman in place, should Mary Ann Erickson (Griffin’s secretary) ever decide to leave the office, an incoming ombudsman would find this orientation process untenable and virtually impossible,” he wrote.

The proposal came up on first reading Wednesday, so it will come back again at the next meeting. Wednesday’s UC meeting was the last until the fall semester.