According to Don Hartsock, the founding ombuds at UCLA, “campus ombuds came into being because of student protests and disruptive dissent” in the 1960s. (Price Spratlen 2003) Yet the organizational ombuds has come of age in an era of much less campus turbulence. Now however, are we seeing a renewal of mass discontent at universities in the face of shifting demographics, rising tuition, reduced public funding, and bleaker job prospects for graduates? What roles, if any, should contemporary ombuds play in engaging campus unrest?
By “campus unrest” we mean a collective expression of discontent that has potential for conflict and violence. Examples include the Occupy movement, racially charged incidents, protests over fees and tuition, sports riots, and labor strikes. There are compelling reasons for ombuds not to get involved. The work is more public, requires more initiative, and is faster-paced than many of us are used to. It is time consuming. The underlying causes of campus unrest may also be higher risk issues than those presented in other ombuds cases. The parties involved may attempt to pressure ombuds to engage in ways that could undermine our standards of practice or result in the ombuds being perceived as biased. Yet there are many good reasons for the ombuds to engage. Campus unrest is a potentially lose-lose conflict scenario in which the entire campus community collectively pays an enormous price in time, relationships, money, reputation, and trust. If our involvement can meaningfully increase opportunities for productive dialogue, we should at least consider how we might constructively engage. After all, it is in our DNA.
How then might ombuds engage? First, how we should not engage: ombuds should not serve as negotiators representing the institution or as neutral observers. The former role is not impartial, and the latter involves participating as a witness in which others may expect the ombuds to report what they saw for purposes of determining what occurred. Additionally, we should steer clear of mediating labor-management disputes because those relationships are governed by complex labor laws which include specific formal processes to resolve those issues. Mediating between protestors and the administration, and facilitating campus dialogue are the possibilities that most commonly come to mind. These deserve more discussion as to when they might be appropriate. However, we want to emphasize the importance of the familiar “ombuds work” which makes up the bulk of our practice. During campus unrest administrators are stressed and in unfamiliar roles, and protestors are factionalized. This is a recipe for internal conflict and poor decision making for both groups. By engaging in “ombuds work” (including conflict coaching, option-generation, reality testing, informal policy analysis, facilitation of communication and upward feedback) ombuds can help both administrators and protestors make more reflective decisions, resulting in better outcomes for everyone. These are merely possibilities. We are not advocating that all ombuds utilize them in all situations. Rather, we are advocating that ombuds consider which, if any, they would utilize, under what circumstances, and most importantly, why or why not? Regardless of how ombuds engage campus unrest they must maintain and exercise their discretion based on the specific context and a deep understanding of our role and function.