For staff and students struggling with a personal conflict or who are concerned that an issue might escalate into conflict, the office of the Binghamton University Ombudsman can be a valuable resource.
Dawn Osborne-Adams, the current ombudsman at BU, took on the role in June and has since been helping the University solve its issues in a manner that is independent, impartial, confidential and informal.
An ombudsman provides assistance to members of the University who are concerned, conflicted or at odds with another person within or outside of the community. This can be as simple as providing an objective opinion or a person to talk to, but an ombudsman is also trained to serve as an impartial mediator between conflicting parties. The ombudsman can also refer students or staff that seek her assistance to other, formal resolution resources, such as agents of the law or University officials. It is a unique role and is often misunderstood until a community member utilizes it firsthand, Osborne-Adams said.
‘The main thing is that problems are better addressed earlier rather than later, a big issue is that people wait until the issue has escalated. They don’t think about the office as an option until they really need it,’ Osborne-Adams said. ‘They should know that the Ombudsman’s office is a good starting place. It’s never the wrong place to go. My job is to help solve the problem at the lowest level possible, before things escalate.’
Osborne-Adams is a member of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA), a group that has established a code of ethics and standards of practice that all ombudsmen abide by. These ethics and practices make the role of the ombudsman very unique and different from formal resolution resources such as judicial recourse.
According to the IOA’s Code of Ethics, an ombudsman must adhere to four ethical stipulations: independence, neutrality and impartiality, confidentiality and informality.
These four things ensure ‘The ombudsman shall be truthful and act with integrity, shall foster respect for all members of the organization he or she serves, and shall promote procedural fairness in the content and administration of those organizations’ practices, processes, and policies,’ according to the IOA’s Code of Ethics.
Osborne-Adams does not associate herself with any other organizations or hold other positions within the University, thus remaining independent.
Furthermore, the ombudsman cannot ‘make binding decisions, mandate policies, or formally adjudicate issues for the organization,’ and any matter that goes through the Office of the University Ombudsman is off the record and strictly confidential, the IOA’s Standards of Practice state.
‘If I were to serve in a decision-making capacity on any given issue, then that would eliminate my office as a resource in the future, should one of the parties want to challenge the fairness of the decision,’ Osborne-Adams said on the importance of the IOA’s regulations. ‘My office needs to be fair and open to everyone at the University.’
The Office of the University Ombudsman is a resource that Terry Deak, the chief of staff in the Office of the President, holds in very high regard.
‘The ombudsman’s office has very unique features in that it deals with students but also faculty and staff,’ Deak said. ‘If you’re a student, you can go to an office chair or the dean, those are your formal mechanisms, or you could go to the ombudsman as a neutral, informal mechanism.’
He also said that if a faculty or staff member is having problems getting along with a peer or supervisor and just wants to get a feel for the situation, he or she can go to the ombudsman before taking the more serious step of filing an HR complaint.
Deak, who was on the committee that appointed Osborne-Adams earlier this year, said, ‘Dawn Osborne-Adams has a warm personality and razor-sharp intellect that makes her the perfect person for Binghamton University in this job.’
According to Deak, the Office of the University Ombudsman has existed at BU in some incarnation for several decades.
According to Osborne-Adams, ombudsmanship is a growing trend that is rapidly gaining popularity not only at the University level but in fields such as government, health care and banking, as well. She feels it is a valuable means of conflict resolution that promotes understanding and amicable resolution.
‘Part of my role is making suggestions for change and improvement, [but] I am not here to tell anyone what to do or change,’ Osborne-Adams said. ‘I am here to help the University live up to the ideals and standards that it has set for itself.’