Campus Life community profile

Mary Rowe retiring from role as ombudsman

41 years of conflict resolution and mentorship

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mary Rowe headed the MIT Ombuds Office. MIT's two ombudsmen are coequals and report directly to the President. In addition, DEC was incorrectly spelled DEQ. Finally, the process of "Drafting a Letter" was clarified — the letter might be sent either privately to the offender or a supervisor if deemed necessary.

The MIT Ombuds Office, according to its mission statement, “helps people express concerns, resolve disputes, manage conflicts, and learn more productive ways of communicating” and serves as a neutral resource to the MIT community. Last year, MIT’s two ombudsmen received about 800 visitors, who collectively raised 3800 different issues, including academic concerns, interpersonal problems, and requests for referrals. Mary Rowe, one of MIT’s ombudsmen, is retiring from her position this year.

Rowe first came to MIT in 1973 as one of two Special Assistants, serving in a role that later became the model for the ombudsman position. She was asked by Jerome B. Wiesner, then president of the Institute, to serve as an independent, neutral, confidential, and informal resource for conflict management and communication.

Wiesner and then-Chancellor Paul Gray first created the position in response to concerns raised by a women’s group on campus in 1972. The group, composed of faculty, students, and staff, had asked Wiesner and Gray to establish a senior administrator to look after the interests of women.

Rowe said that Wiesner, an electrical engineer, approached his role as president of MIT with a systems perspective. She recalled, “He began with the idea of finding faults in the system that affected people.” Rowe and Clarence Williams were hired as the two Special Assistants to provide quick feedback to the upper management. Rowe had the title of Special Assistant for Women and Work, but both she and Williams saw anyone who came to them with impartiality and confidentiality.

When she first arrived on campus, a student reporter asked her what she’d actually be doing. Rowe responded, “I don’t know yet, so if anyone has any ideas about how to improve the quality of life at MIT, please make an appointment and come see me.” Trained as a research economist, Rowe started by gathering data for six months to compile a list of concerns.

When she presented the list to Wiesner, it took the president over an hour to read through the concerns. When he finished, he folded his hands and looked down at the floor. When he finally spoke, he said, “Mary, did MIT have any of these problems before you came?” and laughed. On the way out the door, he told her that she should help each person who came to her as well as she could and added, “Don’t let any problem happen twice,” a charge Rowe still sees as an integral aspect of her role.

According to Rowe, there were other ombudsmen in the late 1960s, but they focused on conducting investigations into individual conflicts. In contrast, Wiesner and Gray were concerned about creating an institution that “made human beings visible,” so that the work of science and innovation could happen happily.

When asked if part of her role was watching for trends, she replied, “The word now that everybody uses is ‘trends,’ but Wiesner wasn’t at all interested in trends. He in fact said to me at some point in the ’70s, ‘If it’s a trend, every manager you talk to jolly well ought to know it. You pick up new problems.’”

After about five years on the job, Rowe made a list of at least 600 policies that had addressed issues that had come to her attention. Some were big, such as equal pensions for men and women serving similar roles, and others were smaller, like putting signs on the handicap ramps to keep them clear of bikes.

The current problems that Rowe sees? “Exhaustion, hands down. I’d put exhaustion first on the list, and perceived mean behavior second. In the last fifteen months, grief has been high on the list — and all its effects. Pace and pressure I’d say has been more of an issue every year for 42 years in my office.”

In 1980, Rowe fell in with a small group of the original university ombudsmen, though they were mainly working on grade disputes and individual complaints. But she found people in roles similar to hers at Bell Laboratories, DEC, Southland, and Anheuser Busch, and, in 1984, they founded the Corporate Ombudsman Association, later renamed The Ombudsman Association, of which she was a president. TOA eventually joined with other college and university ombudsman associations to form the International Ombuds Association, which is now the umbrella worldwide for all organizational ombudsmen.

Rowe also started the first listserv for ombudsmen to share knowledge in the 1980s. She said, “Every ombudsman occasionally gets a kind of issue that comes once or twice in the career of that person, but if you have a hundred ombudsmen, then maybe someone has seen that issue.” In addition, many of the conflict management techniques she uses were developed by talking with other ombudsmen about problems to which there seemed to be no solution.

Rowe herself was faced with such a problem with reports of sexual harassment in the 1970s, long before the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines were established in 1980. “Very early on I met lots of people who would generally tell me that they don’t want to rock any boats, they don’t want anyone to lose face, but they do think that some kind of behavior should stop. They wanted complete privacy. The legal situation would be comparable to what now is true of bullying.”

In response to these complaints, she invented a technique called Drafting a Letter, where a woman might write a private letter to the offender or a supervisor laying out what happened factually, how she feels about the matter, and a proposed remedy. Was this technique successful? Rowe said, “In terms of just getting the individual alleged problem stopped, [the success rate] was well over 80 percent, approaching 99 percent for certain kinds of harassment.”

Rowe is also an adjunct professor at the Sloan School, where she taught for over 20 years. She and Professor Robert B. McKersie, who was one of the two cofounders of the field of negotiation, developed courses in negotiation and conflict management in the 1980s that were among the first of their kind. Negotiation has since become the most popular elective course at Sloan, according to Professor Thomas A. Kochan, who co-taught Negotiation and Workplace Conflict Management with Rowe.

Kochan said: “Mary is a magician in class; she can ask students questions that get the discussion going like no one I’ve ever seen. She has a knack for building up suspense around a conflict or negotiation and asking, ‘Has that ever happened to you?’ And it just brings the class alive.” Rowe credits the popularity of the course to the integration of things she learned from her students.

Rowe’s professional contact with her students sometimes extends well into their careers. Kochan said, “They call her when they have a problem, and she’s a lifelong resource.” Many Negotiations students have gone on to occupy high-ranking positions in various organizations, including Kathleen O’Toole, the Seattle Chief of Police; Elaine Hill, the former Deputy Commissioner of the MA Department of Mental Health; and Jack Potter, the U.S. Postmaster General. Former Secretary of the Air Force and Institute Professor Sheila E. Widnall took a seminar of Rowe’s in the 1970s called Androgyny, which dealt with gender and gender roles.

At least six of her students became ombudsmen themselves, including Linda Wilcox, who became the ombudsman for Harvard Medical School. She recalled her first day in Rowe’s negotiation course, when Rowe introduced herself as the ombudsman at MIT. Later that evening, Wilcox told her husband, “I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to be it,” citing the sense of fairness, integrity, and justice that she sensed in Rowe.

Thomas C. Mills ’77, who took Rowe’s freshman seminar in 1973 and stayed in touch with her, later serving as a teaching assistant, said that Rowe was a personal influence. “Mary had me focus on what I wanted to do after MIT in a way I really hadn’t thought about. I would wander into her office once or twice a month just to say hi, and she always made time for me.”

Linda Wilcox mentioned Rowe’s perseverance, recalling a case that they had worked on together. Rowe had told her, “You don’t drop because you get tired. You need to follow through and get the data.”

For Professor McKersie, Rowe was a resource not only for students but also for him as a deputy dean at Sloan when he needed someone to talk through problems. “You’d go to her, and there’d be instant connection, readiness to help think through what’s an approach to solving that problem. She doesn’t give you specific examples, but helps people think how they are going to resolve problems.”

Next year, Rowe will continue in her role as adjunct professor at Sloan. She’ll be writing papers about several different topics, including the origin of the Ombuds Office, giving ad hoc lectures on the role of bystanders in cases of bullying and harassment, and revising her course on OpenCourseWare to make it more accessible.