During Monday’s meeting of the University’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, SACUA members discussed tuition affordability and heard from University Faculty Ombuds Michael Welsh.
The conversation on cost of tuition began with the topic of how to assess the relative value of certain classes and education as a whole before turning to more tangible aspects of educational costs; members came to the consensus that an important aspect of lowering the cost of attendance is determining what the University’s financial aid packages and aid opportunities lack.
Engineering Prof. Kimberlee Kearfott, chair of SACUA, said the University needs a better way to assess where its financial aid programs fall short and then find ways to remedy the situation.
“What are the missed opportunities for making the University of Michigan more affordable?” Kearfott opined.
Members also questioned Welsh on the technicalities of the Office of Ombuds and issues the unit currently faces. The Faculty Ombudsman provides guidance and solutions in internal conflict resolution for academic and University officials.
Welsh said confidentiality in dispute resolution proceedings may be hindering the ability of the Office of Ombuds to help find settlements and resolution. He also cautioned against using e-mails for confidential communication — although there are some exemptions, e-mails sent by University officials are generally subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which provides for the release of public information. He added that he prefers to talk to visitors over the phone or in person.
“Most times people want other people to know what their problem is, so confidentiality isn’t such a big issue,” Welsh said. “But it can range from wanting people to know to wanting to be so confidential that I can’t do anything.”
Welsh also discussed broad patterns he noticed in the cases he was reviewing. He said about 10 percent of the people he sees are those who realize they aren’t going to reach a promotional tenure.
“For the most part, I can’t help them because that’s a unit decision. If there’s been an error in the process, I can help them with that,” Welsh said. “But most of the time the process has been fine, and so I can’t change the outcome.“
Welsh’s term expires in August, so Prof. Kate Barald asked Welch about how important institutional knowledge and discretion are for the selection process for University ombuds. Welsh said the most important characteristic is to be optimistic, yet practical.
“I think the person needs to be an optimist and pragmatic,” Welsh said.” You’ve got to be neutral. You got to look at them from the point of being curious about how something came out … but you can’t be judgmental.”
Welsh added that in certain cases where nothing can be done, it is important to simply lend an ear to a visitor.
“I think it’s really important to be a good listener,” he said. “Sometimes that’s all you can do.”
Dentistry Prof. Rex Holland brought up the issue of handling gender-related problems. Welsh said he works well with people of different backgrounds and has a high rate of success in cases involving a diverse range of faculty.
Kearfott questioned the necessity of the each college’s individual Office of Ombuds within the University, but Welsh countered by saying that they are useful in some cases, even though 80 to 85 percent of faculty problems are received by him.