Ombudsman: ‘The form of my position is vulnerable’

The TU Delft ombudsman pilot for staff is drawing to a close. How does ombudsman Job van Luyken look back at the last two years?

Job van Luyken: “Sometimes it is inappropriate behaviour, but usually it is ineptitude.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Job van Luyken was appointed ombudsman for TU Delft staff in March 2019. His appointment was a two year pilot. Since then, he has also taken on the position of ombudsman for students and the announcement was made that as of July 2021, it would be mandatory for all universities to have an ombudsman. Whether Van Luyken will take on this role at TU Delft is not yet known. Does he have any advice for this position in the future?

You wrote an evaluation for the Executive Board. What is its message?
“If you walk around TU Delft as an independent individual, some things stand out. What makes it challenging is that I cannot always talk about it, not even to the Executive Board. I register the number of meetings I have – 630 between March 2019 and February 2021 – the number of mediations I do, which department or faculty the people are in, and whether they are academic, support or managerial staff. I also divide the issues into main problems. Are they, for example, conflicts with supervisors or are they about reintegration. It is impossible to trace individuals or departments from my reports. My role is to make sure that issues get the attention they need. Nobody needs to know the details. I realise that this makes it hard to evaluate my performance, so I did a small survey of 40 random people who I saw last year. Seventy-five per cent responded. Apart from a handful of them, they were extremely positive about TU Delft having this position and my performance as the ombudsman.”

‘People want leadership’

Back to the issues that you see at TU Delft. What kind of issues are these?
“Sometimes it is inappropriate behaviour, but usually it is ineptitude. There are plenty of managers at TU Delft, but few leaders. Many managers do not give direction, they just act and do not always set a good example. This gives rise to a lot of hassles. It is inherent to academia that many of the people in supervisory positions are brilliant in their subject area, but are not always equally brilliant in management. One person can do a lot of damage. People want leadership and want to know what they need to do.”

Can they not ask for it? The Netherlands is known for its egalitarian organisations, is it not?
“Not the academic world. The gap between students and PhD candidates and their professors can be huge. On top of this, there are a lot of egos at TU Delft. It is hard to break this, even though it is necessary. There is now a body of young people who want to be equal to each other. I have seen that there sometimes is a lot of tension between PhD candidates and supervisors. PhD candidates often do not know what they should say or what to expect. I can brainstorm with them and offer to phone their supervisor.”

What does a supervisor say when you call?
“Oddly enough, people always know what it is about when I phone. So my usual response is if you know there is a problem, why do you not solve it? I often give them the push that they need, and a solution is found the day after my phone call.”

People cannot get around the ombudsman.
“It does mean that I am not always warmly welcomed for a cup of coffee. Some people feel threatened by my investigative power. Asked or unasked, I may start an investigation if I receive signals which make me concerned. This means that I am authorised talk to anyone, that they are obliged to cooperate and that they must submit the information I ask for.”

‘My right to exist is the trust that people have in me’

Has this happened often?
“No, not often. It is usually enough to give a signal. A department had some issues recently. I said to the dean that there was a staff member there who appeared to not be performing well. I gave him the choice: either I look into the issue, talk to everyone and compile a report, or he does it. He did it. Taking action when nobody is doing so is one of the most important reasons to have an ombudsman. I always try to solve things in a way that avoids escalation, and preferably behind the scenes. This is not a cover-up, but I see that people feel safer if they know that I will not share their story. My right to exist is the trust that people have in me.”

How do you assess who is right in a conflict?
“It is not about who is right or wrong, not even about the truth. It is about how you get out of a situation together. A conflict that escalates can end badly. Last year, two researchers submitted a complaint and asked me for advice. It was indeed a case for the Complaints Desk, but I advised them to first enter into a discussion. You can, of course, submit a complaint, but even if it were declared valid and you are deemed rightful, it usually just leads to nothing but an even worse relationship. As the communication had gone wrong so many times, the two researchers had opted for a complaints procedure. The complaint was declared invalid and the relationship was completely destroyed. The accused person did not want to enter into discussion anymore. This is a real shame as problems will never be solved if there is no communication.”

Talking about communications, there was no publicity last year when all the confidential advisors at TU Delft left. What did you think about them stopping?
“I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, they were not properly supported in their work. If they needed to have a meeting, they had to try and find a room somewhere. While one confidential advisor received extra hours and training, the other did not. On the other hand, many staff members did not feel comfortable with the confidential advisor appointed to their faculty or department. Some had been there for a very long time and were allied to people that other people did not trust. Something had to be done so there was an investigation and a report. The confidential advisors thought it ridiculous that they were not trusted and stopped their work with immediate effect. I cannot do much about this – don’t shoot the messenger. This is why a new policy is currently being defined.”

‘Employees know that I am not one of the guys’

In the meantime, one external confidential advisor has been appointed to keep things going and staff members with problems have difficulty finding their way.
“The communications around this sort of thing is not good, no. When I was appointed for staff, my appointment was not officially announced. When Niek Graafland left as the student ombudsman, it was not announced either. When I took the initiative to replace him after six months, it was not clearly announced anywhere. I believe that if you have an ombudsman in whom you believe, communicate it proactively. I still do not know why this is not done and whether it is intentional or ineffectiveness. Still, people are managing to find their way to the confidential advisor and to me.”

What has corona changed in your work?
“After a minor dip in the second and third quarters of 2020, the number of reports has not changed in the longer term. I have heard few corona related issues from students. I am trying to avoid having to do online mediation meetings. It really does not work for me. I always note people’s body language. I want to see if someone is wringing their hands so that I can ask about that if I feel it necessary. And there is nothing worse than a poor internet connection when someone is telling an emotional story.”

Your term is drawing to a close. Under law, TU Delft is obliged to have an ombudsman from July. Will this be you?
“My contract runs a little longer: until May. I would give it serious thought if they asked me, but it would depend on how the position would be arranged. I currently have sixteen hours a week for staff and four hours a week for students. This is enough time to talk to the people who want to speak to me, but it is not enough time to issue advice, asked or unasked, about the larger problems that I come across or foresee. Furthermore, I am currently hired as a freelancer. Some universities employ their ombudsman. I am not sure which is better. The job is about trust and the ombudsman must be objective and neutral, and is not involved himself/herself in the issues that people bring forward. In my case, they know that I am not one of the guys. That said, you can deal with this in different ways. I believe that it must be clear for all to see that there are transparent rules governing the kind of person you want as an ombudsman in terms of training, character, experience and peer-to-peer coaching. And do not keep the person in position for too long; up to two terms of two or three years at the most. And in between, look at backups and notice periods.”

What do you mean by notice periods?
“My notice period is one month. Imagine I give notice today. One month is not enough time to find a suitable replacement. And how do you arrange the handover of sensitive cases? I agreed with the ombudsman of Erasmus University that we will step in for each other when necessary, but that is an informal arrangement that we agreed ourselves. The form of my position at the moment is very vulnerable.”

Editor in chief Saskia Bonger

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