Conference Summary 2014Ombuds in Higher Education: Our differences and similarities
University of Denver
We in higher education all face similar questions and challenges. Our responses may be determined by national regulations and norms, institutional resources, by those who seek assistance and those who provide it. These factors may, in combination, may help us make sense of what we call ourselves, what we do and for whom, how we do it.
In some countries, national laws determine the office that will address student complaints. In Austria, the office of the student ombudsman is enshrined in law and located in a government ministry, and is available to all students studying at Austrian universities. In Spain, a national law decrees that every public university will have an ombudsman, although the universities may decide how the office is staffed, how ombudsmen are selected and how long they may serve. These ombudsmen may accept or decline a complaint, may attempt to resolve it informally, and may also recommend a resolution.
At the same time, and in some of the same countries, individual universities voluntarily provide resources for or within their own communities. For example, one university designates its Dean of Students as the resource for all and only student complaints. Another determines that the ombuds is an informal resource for all problems from all populations. In yet another, department “Facilitators” are informal resources and an ombudsman is a formal channel for student complaints.
Similar aims, different approaches, a variety of titles. When some 50 attendees were asked about their job titles, more than 17 titles appeared among those participants from English-predominant countries, including “ombud”, “ombuds”, “ombudsman”, “ombudsperson”, “ombuds officer”, “faculty ombudsperson”, “employee ombuds”, “scientific ombudsman”, “university ombudsman”, “associate ombud”, “associate ombuds”, “university ombuds officer”, “university ombudsperson”, “graduate ombudsperson”, “ombuds director”, “student ombuds”, and (to resounding laughter), “ombudsman extraordinaire”.
At the same time that colleges and universities go to great lengths to distinguish themselves from others within the same country and across different countries, a deep culture of collegiality permeates higher education. A long-standing tradition of collaboration and consultation persists in this competitive industry. Academics from different universities often work together on research or projects, or learn with and from one another about their areas of interest. Similarly, administrative staff consult with one another, learning from and with others of their kind in professional associations and networks, at meetings and conferences. In the absence of regulation, Os from different countries “harmonize” their practices through education, comparison, conversation and case consultation. They explore common principles of confidentiality/privacy, informality/formality, independence, and impartiality/neutrality, and how they inform their practices. Os in higher education also identify other principles that guide their work, including but not limited to: accessibility, being present, compassion, dignity, discipline, do no harm, fairness, integrity, open mind, patience, professionalism, resourceful, respect, safety, self-determination, self-reflection, thoughtfulness, and trust.