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Ombudsmen Address Variety of Problems

By Eva Moy
News Editor

Mary Rowe, one of MIT's two ombudsmen, spoke to the Association of MIT Alumnae on Sunday about how complaints and grievances are handled at MIT. AMITA, which addresses issues of particular concern to women students, "felt it was really important for other women students to know who Mary is and [that she] is available to help with difficult problems," especially sexual harassment issues, said President Christina H. Jansen '63.

Jansen said she was "very pleased with the student attendance," which included about 75 undergraduate and graduate women.

The ombudsmen are one of many formal and informal complaint channels at MIT. Rowe and her colleague Clarence G. Williams work as "impartial complaint-handlers who are charged to take into account the rights of every person who may be involved in any given case or concern, and also the welfare of the Institute," according to a description written by the pair.

"Ombudsmen have no power to make or change or set aside administrative decisions or MIT policy... [but] may serve as shuttle diplomats, or mediators, and can help to see that problems are brought to the attention of appropriate line managers," the description continues.

Although they mainly help employees and staff, they are "happy to talk with any member of the community" about any topics, Rowe said.

Rowe, who is also an adjunct Professor of Management, emphasized that there are other channels for filing grievances, such as the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs, the Graduate Student Office, Campus Police, the Medical Department, housemasters and graduate tutors, Nightline, and Contact Line.

About half of the cases the ombudsmen hear are related to workplace mistreatment and racial, sexual, gender, and sexual orientation harassment. Other topics include disability-related questions, career discussions, child care, safety, and requests for help in dealing with complaints brought to someone else. Rowe estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of the cases brought to the ombudsmen are resolved.

Occasionally, Rowe and Williams deal with a lighter kind of question, such as planning a hack or praising a well-liked professor.

"Most people in any working environment can't or won't be persuaded to bring a formal grievance" out of fear of retaliation or because they do not know the procedures for filing complaints, Rowe said. "There's a long way to go in terms of prevention" of harassment and other uncomfortable situations, she added.

"The Institute certainly won't change unless somebody brings [problems] up," Rowe said.

Rowe felt that people come to her and Williams "to learn about what all the options are. ... A great many people want to tailor-make an option to their circumstances."

The ombudsmen keep no formal records, so that the information they collect cannot be used against anybody, Rowe said. She added that roughly 1850 people consulted the ombudsmen last year and 1500 two years ago.

"Whether there's been a real increase is hard to say," Rowe said. She added that it is hard to measure the success of preventive measures by an increase or decrease in the number of cases reported.

With topics such as stalking and unwanted phone calls it can be "a little difficult to know how effective we can be in prevention," Rowe added.