Over the past few years, many work organizations and higher education institutions have created a role called “ombuds” or “ombudsperson.” An ombuds is “one who assists individuals and groups in the resolution of conflicts or concerns.” Sometimes the concerns arise between peers, conflicts or grievances about the behavior of one person on the part of another. Sometimes the concerns arise between people at different levels of an organization (e.g., a university staff member and a student, a faculty member and a staff member).
The ideal characteristic of ombuds is neutrality in the dispute. They need to listen to both sides’ stories, attempting to identify possible misunderstandings, one person’s ignorance of norms or rules applicable to the event, or any other feature of the dispute that might yield a positive outcome. The ombuds does not attempt to identify “who is right or who is wrong.” The goal of the ombuds is to help the two parties identify options for solutions. Often this requires the ombuds to help the parties reframe the notion of the dispute, assisting them in dialogue. This reframing often increases shared empathy between the parties. If that fails, the ombuds may refer one or both parties to more formal resolution practices codified in the institution. More often, ombuds find that they can act as an informal mediator to solve the problem.
For several years, Georgetown has enjoyed the services of an ombuds for faculty, more recently for graduate students. The School Deans, with the assistance of the Provost Office, have authorized the expansion of ombuds’ services to undergraduates as well as graduate students. The original idea for such a role arose from the Provost Student Advisory Committee and the Provost Diversity Committee. The undergraduate students described various reports of unpleasant interactions with faculty, staff, and/or other students.
The Student Ombuds would serve as a resource for undergraduate and graduate students to help them navigate campus resources. Students might seek the ombuds’ assistance if they are experiencing conflict or difficulty during their time at Georgetown. Difficulties may occur broadly from personal conflicts in student organizations, work-related, or in academic affairs.
The Ombuds will serve as a confidential resource to assist all students explore matters of concern and clarify the appropriate campus unit for resolution. The University would encourage students to engage with the Ombuds early to help de-escalate any potential issues.
True to the spirit of an objective mediator, the Ombuds will not have institutional authority to advocate for students, change policies, overturn decisions, or force an issue to be addressed.
In addition, there would be areas of conflict that would be out of scope of the ombuds because they are covered by other processes, including investigation of discrimination/harassment or retaliation, investigation of bias-related incidents or hate crimes, participation in internal or external formal complaints, or legal advice. Thus, this new role supplements and, hopefully, complements other student support services on campus, like the IDEAA grievance process, the Bias Reporting System, the Honor Council, the Academic Resource Center, existing Student Conduct protocols, Ethics/Compliance Reporting, Office of Residential Living, the Office of Student Financial Services, and the Academic Deans’ offices.
The Student Ombuds will be a permanent staff position, housed in the Office of the Provost, and reporting to the Vice Provost for Education. Using the International Ombudsman Association educational offerings, the Ombuds would be trained in the ethics and state-of-the-art practices of the profession.
We have great hopes that this new role will improve the climate for all at Georgetown and enhance for all a sense of belonging to the community.