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ADR Pilot Success Prompts Permanent Post
Seasoned Mediator Gadlin Tackles NIH Ombuds Office

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...

But for the staff, there's not much in the new Bldg. 31 suite of the NIH Office of the Ombudsman. The freshly painted bare walls and sparse furnishings could be a metaphor for policy: Visitors will find no preconceived notions or judgments within these doors; beginning here, at this blank slate as it were, common ground is sought. So far, at least, there are precious few clues about what to expect. Enter the ombuds' inner sanctum, however, and you encounter a 4-foot inflatable figure of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" standing deskside — its dramatic expression of despair far less a harbinger of bad times than a humorous reminder of what alternative dispute resolution (ADR) can in most cases help avoid. And if you miss the subtlety of that message, on a nearby table lies a bumper sticker whose words leave no doubt, "Don't Litigate, MEDIATE."


Dr. Howard Gadlin, a veteran mediator, joined NIH as ombudsman in December. He has held ombuds positions for 17 years, serving stints at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the University of California, Los Angeles.

"I'm hoping for high visibility of the office," says Dr. Howard Gadlin, who was recently appointed as NIH ombudsman, now a permanent position here. "I hope that people become more aware of the value of negotiation and feel comfortable enough to bring their grievances and conflicts to us."

Indeed, business seems to be picking up for the well-seasoned mediator with 17 years of professional experience as an institutional ombudsman on both coasts — 10 years at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and most recently 7 years at the University of California, Los Angeles. In a 45-minute period, he is interrupted several times by phone calls from people wanting not to complain about management or rail against their coworkers, but simply to make contact with the ombudsman or set up panels or meetings that may help groups and individuals alike get a handle on ADR, a relatively new concept on campus.

In December 1997, NIH launched a 12-month experiment in alternative dispute resolution that represented some of the campus's first forays into ADR, whose tenets the ombuds supports. ADR's fundamental goal is to steer conflicting parties toward peaceful coexistence, without resorting to ofttimes career-threatening, time-consuming and mission-thwarting official or legal channels. The pilot, under the guidance of former NEI bench scientist Dr. David Lee Robinson, thrived. Disputes involving intellectual property rights and authorship of scientific papers were among those commonly resolved, with all sides having their say — if not their way. Need and benefit firmly established, a permanent ombudsperson was sought, with Robinson agreeing to continue as deputy ombuds. Soon, the office hopes to have four professionals and a support person on staff, as well as avail itself of help from interns studying ADR.

"It's hard to imagine a large organization — which means a bureaucracy — where you don't have a need for the ombuds function," explains Gadlin, a former professor of psychology for more than 25 years. "In any situation where you have so many people and so many managers with so many rules, you inevitably find that perhaps someone is not as evenhanded in administering the rules as they should be, or perhaps you come into a situation where you might need an exception to the rules. The ombuds — an independent observer and critic — has a responsibility to say if things are done in an unfair or untimely or untoward manner."

If Gadlin will open NIH to the many facets of ADR, then no less will NIH introduce Gadlin to a new environment as well. "I've been in academia all my life," he says, smiling. "I've been in the 'sandbox' called university for a very long time." And although some things among ivory tower walls are different (for example, at UMass, the ombuds position is always held by a tenured faculty member; at UCLA, the post is completely independent of the institution's faculty — UMass was "small-townish," he confides, while UCLA was "big-city, with a very diverse population"), the environments were still in the same general world.

"I gave up tenure at UMass to take the position at UCLA," Gadlin says. "It was a very different dynamic than I was accustomed to, so I'm no stranger to change. Now this will be a different dynamic than both the others. I'm expecting to have to make a similar adjustment at NIH, my first experience as an employee of the federal government. But that's the fun of it. That is what keeps the work interesting. One of the things you have to be careful of is not to assume that the kinds of things that were successful in one world will automatically be successful in another."

Over the last decade or so, Gadlin says, the concept of ADR has grown and changed, and the scope of the ombuds function has spread to a wider range of institutions, from nursing homes to newspapers. In recent times, the field has helped pave paths through such widely contentious areas as sexual and racial harassment. It was partly due to criticism by ombuds people, Gadlin points out, that sorely needed training programs in reducing sexual harassment were developed nationwide.

"When I started out as an ombuds, we were mainly dealing with individual disputes and grievances," he recalls. "Over time, however, the individual grievances began to be seen as possible indicators of systemic problems. It was then recognized that in many instances we could alleviate some of this conflict by initiating preventive actions. Most people want to be better at what they do. Seldom do you come across someone who has just given up and is totally resistant to reason."

Consequently, myriad educational forums, workshops and discussion groups emerged around the country to combat negative responses to such realities as more women and minorities gaining power in the workforce, and more diverse competition in academic environments. In many ways, the same sea change has begun to challenge the federal government. That's why an ombuds with Gadlin's experience could be seen as the catch of the day.

Describing himself as having "a long history as a political activist in the Sixties and getting into a lot of trouble on campus" while bucking the system in his student and pre-ombuds days, Gadlin says time has taught him more than one way to stand for what is right: "I've learned that you can accomplish a lot in negotiation. You're often pleasantly surprised and very well rewarded when you enter into collaboration with those you see as the enemy."

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