Office history

The Ombuds Office at MIT, which had its beginnings in 1973, evolved from the desire of an MIT President and Chancellor—in their words—“to make human beings more visible in this Institute of Science and Technology.” They often talked about fairness, equity, community, decency, integrity—and continuous systems improvement toward excellence. President Wiesner often spoke in terms of “designing the future.” In today’s terms, these two leaders were deeply concerned with “inclusion.” Sparked by concerns about diversity, they sought one, and then another, Special Assistant.

In 1973 President Jerome Wiesner and Chancellor Paul Gray specified a number of characteristics of the job that they gave to their new Special Assistant for Women and Work and, in 1974, to their new Special Assistant for Minority Affairs1. Over a period of twenty years—in the context of hundreds of discussions—the first four characteristics of the MIT Ombuds Office became Standards of Practice for organizational ombudsmen2. The 1973 “specs” are now widely adopted by organizational ombudsman (OO) offices around the world. They continue today.

1) Impartiality Regardless of the fact that the Special Assistants had titles emphasizing commitment to the thriving of minorities and women, they were expected to be impartial with respect to individual complaints. They were to be engaged with work policies and procedures and to advocate for “fair process,” rather than for any individual. The “impartiality" characteristic became the Standard of Practice of “neutrality” for OOs.

In the event, Rowe and Williams always received men, as well as women—and people of all backgrounds, and with any kind of issue. In Wiesner’s words, they were directed to “help each person who came, as well as they could.” They were also expected to think, in a balanced way, about systems implications, as they learned about issues and good ideas from the individuals that came to the office. 

Rowe and Williams brought many suggestions to administrators for systemic improvements. In the late 70’s there was a list of ~ 600 small and large changes in policies and procedures and structures, at MIT, as a result of concerns and suggestions. Many of the changes made by the MIT Administration helped women and people of color, and people with disabilities. Many changes also helped everyone. 

2) Confidentiality From the beginning the Special Assistants were expected to protect the identities of those who came to see them, and "not to keep formal records for MIT.” Wiesner and Gray were each careful to protect the confidentiality of their Special Assistants, (later “Ombudspersons”). MIT leaders recognized that there might be challenges to their confidentiality but said, that, on balance, they felt the risks of not having a confidential “universal-resource” in the system were higher than the occasional cost of defending that resource. (They explained this as a Type One, Type Two error problem: the costs in not having an organizational ombudsman (an OO) vs the costs of having an OO. "MIT could not choose to make no errors, or to incur no costs, with respect to this question, but that one could choose the direction of the error or costs.") 

The characteristic of confidentiality became a Standard of Practice for OOs3 and forms a major element of the Code of Ethics for OOs. The Code of Ethics explicitly states that an OO may breach confidentiality only when the OO perceives that there is imminent risk of serious harm.

3) Independence The office was designed to report only “to the President and Chancellor” (the Chancellor, at that time, functioned, informally and then formally, as a deputy President.). The office was designed to "function independently from all line and staff structures.” (This structure partially echoed the charge to an earlier officer: the Dean for Institute Relations, Dr. Benson R. Snyder, and presaged the later appointment in 2013 of the MIT ICEO, Professor Edmund Bertschinger.) 

The Special Assistants reported independently to the President and Chancellor. They were to have direct access if ever needed, to the Chairman or Executive Committee of the Corporation. The characteristic of independence became a Standard of Practice for OOs, with access to the relevant board of directors explicitly mentioned in IOA Best Practices.4 

4) No management decision-making power It was evident from the beginning that the first three characteristics of the job required that the Special Assistants function informally. They were expected to try to persuade, to mediate, and to make recommendations, and to draft suggestions for policies, but they had no management authority. They were not to accept formal complaints or notice for MIT. If someone wished to make a record, or put the Institute "on notice," that is, to make MIT formally aware of a particular problem, they were to provide information on how to do so. This characteristic became the Standard of Practice of informality for OOs. 
The Special Assistants were, also, explicitly charged with finding ways, completely consonant with confidentiality, to get (non-identifiable) information back to line and staff managers that managers might wish to consider5. Since that time, the Special Assistants (now OOs) have indeed met with many department heads and all senior officers at least once a year to report, in a fashion consonant with the confidentiality of individuals, on concerns and commendations they have collected from each relevant area. 

5) A systems approach President Wiesner and Chancellor Gray were engineers. Their interest was to help surface any faults with any system and help to get them fixed. (In Wiesner’s whimsical words, this came out as: “Don’t let any problem happen twice.”)  They wanted to know about innovations that could be communicated and possibly implemented throughout the system. They especially wanted to know about any “new” problem or issues, and especially about any new issue that might be disruptive. They took office in an age of “neural networks,” and successes on international scientific teams. They wanted an integrated systems approach in organizational conflict management.

To this end they explicitly fostered a degree of “redundancy”—in the engineering sense of fail-safe, checks and balance, and backup. They did so, explicitly, to manage and mitigate risk, as well as to foster continuous improvement. They recognized that redundancy in the system would sometimes be messy, but laid higher value on getting more information flowing upward. A systems approach was not adopted as a Standard of Practice for OOs, but is widely held to be important for OOs and widely practiced. 

The idea of redundancy is now often called “multiple access points” and is now considered an important element of structure for conflict management systems worldwide. This is partly because of widespread recognition that different people may wish to come forward—with their ideas and concerns—to different people, and in different ways. Redundancy however also illuminates the importance of communications and coordination within a conflict management system.  

Wiesner and Gray encouraged Constantine Simonides, VP in the Office of the President, to bridge the divides among academic, research and administrative parts of MIT. A number of cross-functional committees and working groups were established. This bridging, and the requirement for the Special Assistants to serve everyone on every issue, inspired Rowe, beginning in the 1970’s, to write about the concept of an integrated conflict management system, or ICMS. The term, ICMS, is now a commonplace term in the field of conflict management, for dealing with issues at the lowest possible level, for the prevention of violence, for the dissemination of good ideas, for efficient functioning of conflict management, etc. 

6) Diversity and Inclusion  Wiesner and Gray’s leadership—with respect to what are now called diversity and inclusion—had hundreds of facets and successes. The additional, explicit, moral imperative about “inclusion" did not become a Standard of Practice for organizational ombuds, but it is now also characteristic of virtually all OO positions around the world.

1. Clarence Williams and Mary Rowe were named Ombudspersons in 1980; Rowe also became an Adjunct Professor at Sloan, in 1985, and Williams became Adjunct Professor in DUSP.
2. The many processes by which this happened, among dozens of OOs, several OO organizations and the ABA, are well chronicled in Charles Howard, The Organizational Ombudsman, ABA, 2010, chapter 1, and briefly at
5. Presidents Wiesner and Gray and a later Provost, Robert Brown, explicitly requested the ombudspersons to introduce their services to new administrative, academic and research department heads, and to work closely with them.