The Ombudsperson

Linda Cicero

Lowell Price has been a consultant to the Zuni tribe and taught high school English. And for 36 years, he’s been a fixture on the Stanford campus, serving as secretary to the Board of Trustees, University cabinet secretary and associate director of the Office of Planning and Management. Now, Price, ’65, MA ’67, PhD ’70, is the newly appointed University ombudsman, or ombudsperson, or . . .

. . . What should we call him? “ ‘Ombuds’ is fine with me, although some people think that sounds like a cereal,” says Price. “Some friends call me their ‘ombuddy,’ and others call me ‘Bud.’ But most people say,‘Who are you? What is this?’ ”

Like many of life’s niceties, ombudsship began in Sweden. Antecedents of the first ombuds were appointed by the Swedish king in 1713, and the first was named at a U.S. campus, Eastern Montana College, in 1966. Stanford launched an ombuds office in 1969, and Price is the seventh titleholder (following a professor of psychiatry, lawyer, registrar, professor of philosophy, social worker and another lawyer).

Ombuds 101 At a recent meeting of the Ombudsman Association, Price learned about what he calls the “building blocks” of the trade—principles of confidentiality, neutrality, independence and privilege—along with peers from companies like Shell and Coca-Cola and government agencies like the Department of Justice and the Federal Aviation Administration. “What I would call ‘ombudsry’ is an emerging profession, with currently about 500 people in the country practicing it,” he says.

He doesn’t do grievances, arbitration, litigation or windows. Price’s job is to help resolve campus-related problems informally through conversation or mediation. Most of the people who find their way to his office are having conflicts with coworkers or supervisors, or believe they’re being treated unfairly. “Often people will say, ‘I don’t know what this problem is, but I need some place to begin,’” he says. “Sometimes people who come to see me are at the end of the line. I get a lot of very upset people.”

Shhh. It’s a secret. Price takes working notes about the conversations he has with faculty, staff and students on a single piece of paper that he subsequently destroys. His office is soundproofed with poofy white wall paneling, a sealing strip runs along the bottom of his door and the “super shredder” under his desk is his version of a file cabinet. He’s planning to add a green plant or two for ambience. “What I promise is confidentiality,” he says. “That means I’m not keeping records. I am also a neutral person—impartial in the sense that I don’t take a position. And I’m independent. Nobody tells me what to do, and nobody knows who I ’m talking with.”

But what happens in the padded room? “I usually begin by asking, ‘Do you know much about this office?’ And the answer for 85 percent of visitors is no. A lot of our initial conversation is to begin developing a relationship, so someone will invest his or her trust in me. ”

Helping people help themselves. Although he’s spent his career solving problems, Price says he now thinks of that as a “pretty primitive level of service.” Instead, he wants to help folks help themselves. “I believe people know what’s best for them, but they’re too busy, or their ideas are too limited, or they think they have no power, or they feel helpless. And part of my job is to create enough safety and stillness for them to know what to do.”

It’s like landing in apricot jam. “My friends say, ‘Why would you take such a job? You have to hear people’s complaints, their difficulties, their problems.’ But this is, for me, a fabulous gift of alignment of my own interest in making a contribution and what people need. I am the luckiest duck in town, like I fell into an apricot jam pot. Even when a day has been tough, at the end of that day, I have felt useful.”