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Volume 2, Number 1, Oct 2001

The Emergence of
Campus Mediation Systems:
History in the Making

by William C. Warters, Ph.D.

(Note: this article is based on a longer, more complete paper available from the Consortium on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Georgia State University)

In this article I explore historical changes in the campus context as it relates to mediation and conflict resolution, and make note of apparent trends in the writing and research on campus conflicts and conflict resolution. Describing the history of a social innovation like campus mediation services is an inescapably subjective, imprecise, and ongoing process. Despite these limitations, I think telling the story of campus mediation (or at least one version of it) is quite useful. The historical narrative provides newcomers to the area some grounding in what has come before, and provides practitioners and researchers who have worked in some subset of the field, often in relative isolation, a sense of the bigger picture.

Defining Terms

For the current purposes I use the term higher education to refer broadly to any post-secondary educational settings, including universities, colleges, technological schools, and community colleges. The word mediation itself has many different and sometimes conflicting connotations. To provide a shared starting place, I am defining mediation broadly as conciliatory interventions by a party (or parties) not directly involved in a problem or dispute, who work with the parties involved to facilitate the development of a shared and mutually acceptable solution to the problem. Please keep in mind that the actual practice of mediation in higher education varies tremendously according to the degree of formality or informality, the openness of the process, the amount of time the parties spend face-to-face, the type of person(s) chosen as intervenor, and the relative emphasis placed on transformation (both individual and systemic) or problem-solving and settlement.

Changes in the Campus "Conflict Environment" Over Time

The university and college environment has always had it's share of conflicts, large and small. Approaches to dealing with these conflicts has varied over time, based on prevailing norms, societal conditions, and available resources. Susan Holton's article “It’s Nothing New! A History of Conflict in Higher Education.” (Holton 1995) provides a quick sketch of some of the earliest struggles that helped shape our higher education system, and the ever-changing parade of issues providing the grist for conflict and contention on campus.

Campus Upheaval and Change

The Cold War and the McCarthy era had a profound impact on the conflict climate on university campuses. While I don’t wish to discount the significance of this period, for the purposes of this article I will begin my analysis in the mid 1960s, as this is the era where campus conflict became particularly visible and significant structural changes began to occur on campus with regard to handling conflict. This is also the first time that I find any significant research or scholarly writing on campus conflict and conflict management. In fact, research reports and studies of conflict in higher education were relatively common in the literature from the period between 1965-75. Two relevant examples are the edited volumes Conflict and Change on Campus: The Response to Student Hyperactivism (Brickman and Lehrer 1970) with articles such as “Student Unrest in Perspective,” “Anatomy of a Revolt,” and “A Strategy for Campus Peace” and Academic Supermarkets: A Critical Case Study of a Multiversity (Altback and others 1971) which included articles on topics such as the “Anatomy of Faculty Conflict”, “Departmental Clashes”, “Four Decades of Activism” (charting student initiated conflicts from 1930-1968) and “Generational Conflict.”

Carolyn Stieber, a longtime campus ombudsperson at Michigan State University, describes the campus climate in the late 1960’s as follows (Stieber 1991):

1967 was a different world in many ways. The concept in loco parentis was in its terminal stages. Virtually every campus of any size was traumatized by repeated demonstrations against the Vietnam War. A military draft was in effect. In 1968 disorder spilled over to the streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, undoubtedly influencing the presidential election. Yellow ribbons belonged only to a corny song; military recruiters came on campus at their peril. Recurrent political protests, which involved faculty as well as students, were joined to other complaints about bureaucratic indifference and professorial casualness toward teaching responsibilities.... There was a generalized sense that no one cared about major, much less minor, injustices, system glitches, organizational errors, or unclear rules and regulations with arbitrary if not capricious enforcement.... Police were often called upon to clear out buildings and arrest demonstrators or escort people into buildings, picking their way over shards of broken glass... (At the same time) Universities were still experiencing rapid growth; no one thought that strenuous recruitment efforts and sophisticated marketing strategies would later be needed in a search for warm bodies. There was money then. The word "Budget" did not have all the connotations of uncertainty, if not mystery, which now attach to that term. However, top administrators often were attempting to assert more centralized control over burgeoning campuses while faculty, historically anxious about protecting their prerogatives, had no great enthusiasm for the notion...

Given the turmoil of the times, it is not surprising that most of the writing during this period focused on political protests, campus crisis management approaches, and responses to student demands for greater influence over university policies and procedures.

The Emergence of Campus Ombuds

Administrative responses to this period of activism and change varied considerably, but one creative and relatively widespread university adaptation was the development of a new role, a variation the Swedish “grievance man,” called the campus ombudsman. Michigan State University became the first major US university (in 1967) to establish an ombuds office. Ombuds offices were an attempt to respond to demands for a neutral, confidential, and "safe" place to discuss concerns and voice complaints. The early emphasis of ombuds programs was to increase the perception and reality of “fairness” and justice of procedures and decisions made on campus, and to assist people in navigating the increasingly complex maze of procedures that were being developed. The California Caucus of College and University Ombuds (CCCUO) was founded in 1973 to help networking among programs, in particular by hosting an annual conference at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California. The First Canadian Conference of College and University Ombudsmen was held at Concordia University in Montreal in 1979. In the United States, following a range of regional networking initiatives, the University and College Ombuds Association (UCOA) was formally established in the mid 1980s and remains the central organizing body for campus ombuds in the United States.

In terms of campus conflict research during this period, the emergence of ombuds offices in the late 1960s was accompanied by quite a few dissertations and descriptive projects trying to document and define this "New Bird on Campus" (Norman 1968) . As proceedings from early gatherings such as the The Ombudsman in Higher Education: Advocate or Subversive Bureaucrat conference (1969) suggest, the role of the new campus ombuds was never cut and dried.

From a campus conflict systems perspective, a number of interesting theoretical pieces were written during this period including Victor Baldridge’s book Power and Conflict in the University: Research in the Sociology of Complex Organizations (Baldridge 1971), and Rensis and Jane Likerts’ conflict systems theory as described in the chapter "System 4 Structure Applied to Conflicts in Universities" found in their 1976 book New Ways of Managing Conflict (Likert and Likert 1976).

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Page last updated 11/27/2005

A project of Campus Conflict Resolution Resources.
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo project.


Correspondence to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication
585 Manoogian Hall
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.

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