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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Colleges hiring front men to hear student complaints

Brad Holland is a busy guy. Since coming to the University of Virginia nine years ago, he has been attentively listening to faculty, staff, administration and students – all of whom seem to have some kind of problem with the way things are being run.

His job? To solve those problems.

“It really runs the gamut, from parking to issues with graduate students,” said Holland. “My entire role is to help people with issues that they have, whatever they might be.”

Holland is the university’s ombudsman, and is part of a growing trend in higher education. An increasing number of colleges across the country are creating ombudsman offices to deal with inter-university complaints.

The roots of the university ombudsman go back to the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the face of social changes brought about by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, decided they needed a more personal way to connect with their students.

“There was a lot of student unrest,” said Doug Whitman, the ombudsman at the University of Kansas, who is also a professor in the school of business. “A lot of people found the whole university system to be a giant bureaucracy, so they created an ombudsman to try to help people navigate through it.”

Since their inception, university ombudsmen have evolved to become not just interpreters of university policy, but also mediators for conflicts in the college community. Anybody associated with the university – be they staff, faculty or students – can approach the ombudsman to air grievances in a respectful, impartial and confidential environment.

“(The ombudsman office) is seen as a way to address things constrictively,” said Judi Segall, the ombudsman at Stony Brook University who and president of the International Ombudsman Association. “It acts as a balance to more formal, grievance-oriented or adjudicative kind of processes.”

Though results inevitably vary, there are plenty of success stories. At the University of Virginia, Holland was recently able to solve an inter-staff sexual harassment dispute through mediation. Other examples include a lawsuit that was avoided at Michigan State University through the work of an ombudsman after a professor became irate after he was fired.

Another reason for the success of higher education ombudsmen lies in the office’s impartiality. Though ombudsmen are generally paid for their services, the position also requires adherence to a code of conduct, which states that all ombudsmen must examine the issues before them in an independent and impartial manner.

“Because we’re not part of the ‘formal system’ and we have no other agenda, we are seen as credible and trustworthy,” Segall said. “All we want to do is promote fair practices.”

Another thing that makes the ombudsman position so attractive to universities is the confidentiality that is honored with every complaint. With no restriction on what to say and no worry that their words could get them in trouble, people are more likely to air their grievances with the ombudsman office, even if their complaint is about something relatively small.

“A lot of people just want to talk,” said Whitman. “There are a lot of conflicts in such a large organization, and it’s a good thing for people to be able to talk privately and discuss the various options that are open to them.”

Ultimately, the value lies in students knowing their complaints are being heard. By establishing a tangible outlet for students’ complaints, universities are trying to reassure students that their opinions matter.

“Just having the opportunity to know that they can come in and speak openly, be very respectfully listened to, and get a very clear, forthright and reality-based response that very much factors in their interests,” Segall said. “It’s not just the party line, and that in and of itself is a weight off of people’s shoulders.”2.17

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