Annalisa Peterson joined Johns Hopkins this fall as the university's first ombuds for doctoral and postdoctoral students, fellows and programs, a role that uniquely positions her to offer confidential, independent, and impartial counsel and problem-solving for a range of potential issues.
Ombuds—a word derived from the Swedish "ombudsman," meaning a proxy or representative—are found in a variety of organizations, where they generally function as public advocates independent of the group that employs or appoints them. That is the case for Peterson, who can assist with issues including workplace and interpersonal conflict, ethical and safety concerns, harassment, and discrimination.
"Though I operate as a part of the university, I'm neutral and independent," Peterson said. "I don't represent or advocate for any one person or on behalf of the university. I do, however, advocate for fair processes and equity at Johns Hopkins."
Peterson is an attorney and mediator by training, with 20 years of practical experience in the field of dispute resolution. Before coming to Johns Hopkins, she served as deputy Title IX coordinator and associate to the director of the University of Minnesota's Office for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, where she addressed concerns of discrimination and sexual misconduct through both formal investigation and informal problem-solving processes.
The Hub spoke with Peterson about her new role at JHU, the type of support she can offer, and what happens when someone reaches out to schedule a consultation with her.
What does the ombuds do?
This is my most frequently-asked question! Most of us haven't worked with an ombuds before, and even the word "ombuds" can itself raise eyebrows. Boiled down, the role of an ombuds is to provide a safe, confidential space where people can informally bring concerns or questions related to their experience at an institution. The support I provide to visitors to the Ombuds Office is flexible, depending on the needs of the situation. That can include listening, clarifying the issues at play, strategic thinking, problem-solving, communication and conflict coaching, and generating options for next steps. I can also facilitate or mediate informal conversations between people or groups when appropriate.
Though I operate as a part of the university, I'm neutral and independent. I don't represent or advocate for any one person or on behalf of the university. I do, however, advocate for fair processes and equity at Johns Hopkins. Because I hold no other roles at the university, the chance for conflicts of interest and bias in my work is greatly reduced, and I have the ability to devote all of my time to being available to those who seek support from the Ombuds Office.
Lastly, because the Ombuds Office serves programs across the university, I can identify and surface to university leaders any systemic themes that arise across schools and departments, and provide recommendations that those things be addressed.
What kinds of situations can the ombuds help with?
My scope is quite broad, and I think that's important—I can help with any issue of concern that is impacting doctoral or postdoctoral programs, or the experience of being a doctoral student or postdoc at the university more broadly. Let's say someone's having a conflict with a colleague in their lab—it's significantly impacting their work relationships and their general experience of going to work, but they aren't sure how to address it without making things worse.
Or perhaps a doctoral student or postdoc is experiencing a communication issue or conflict with a PI or advisor. As folks reading this are likely well aware, this can feel really vulnerable given how much of one's professional and academic progress can ride on those relationships. It can feel impossible to take any action, and yet the ongoing conflict can simultaneously be very damaging to a person's productivity and personal well-being in a way that doesn't feel sustainable.
Other common examples of the type of concerns an ombuds can help with involve program climate and conditions, expectations for performance, the application (or lack thereof) of a university policy, benefits, authorship, or academic or research integrity issues.
What happens after someone speaks with the ombuds?
The answer to this question depends totally on what the visitor to the Ombuds Office wants. That's one of the most valuable things about working with the ombuds—you retain total control over what happens next.
Do you just need a place to talk through the issues you're dealing with and get some input and support in doing so? Great. We can end our consultation there if that's what you need. Or maybe you want to brainstorm some options, see how things go, and follow up in a month if necessary.
Would you like me to confidentially gather information to help answer some questions that may be relevant to your concerns? I can do that, too.
Maybe it would be helpful to develop a plan for the ombuds to reach out to another person to invite them into a conversation about the concerns, or to consider scheduling a mediation or facilitated conversation. Perhaps you just want to get a better sense of the resources available to you.
All of these things are options, and we can formulate a plan about which of them to employ together.
How do you maintain confidentiality and protect the identity of someone who reaches out to you?
Unlike most university employees, I am a designated confidential resource and not a mandated reporter, so I am not required to report concerns like sexual misconduct or discrimination. The only exceptions to the Ombuds Office's pledge of confidentiality are when I learn about potential child abuse/neglect, or situations involving serious imminent physical harm, which I am required to report. Beyond these exceptions, I will not share any information unless compelled by law. To support this end, I do not keep permanent records, but instead destroy any notes I have taken on a concern after I am done working with a visitor.
Based on your experience, what value can an ombuds bring to a place like Hopkins?
I see the Ombuds Office as an additional resource that can both fill gaps and complement existing channels for the resolution of concern. For every formal complaint or grievance that's filed, we know there are many more that are never raised, due to fear of potential retaliation or personal consequences, or the desire to avoid the burdens that can accompany a formal process. The Ombuds Office provides an additional avenue to confidentially and informally raise concerns, many of which would likely have otherwise gone unsurfaced.
Having support in navigating and addressing concerns can make all the difference in someone's experience and success at the university. I also think the Ombuds Office can bring unique value to the university by observing, cataloging, and reporting on systemic trends and themes that come up across the university, in the hopes that they may be effectively addressed and resolved.