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Volume 2, Number 3, May 2002

Extending Campus Conflict Resolution Efforts Beyond the Mediation Table

by Bill Warters

It would be foolish to assume that mediation initiatives in and of themselves have the capacity to serve all the dispute resolution needs of a college campus. The sources and forms of conflict are varied and thus a variety of methods, both proactive and reactive are needed in response. Campus conflict occurs within the context of a community, and this broader community must share in the work of preventing, resolving, and learning from the conflicts in their midst.

This article describes creative responses to campus conflict that don't rely on mediation as their central strategy or approach, providing links to online examples when available. While mediation program staff must not shoulder sole responsibility for addressing campus conflict, they are usually in a good position to help promote and support creative "non-mediation" initiatives such as the ones described below.

Group-Process Intervention Strategies

Working at the group level is often a necessity. Individual disputes may (and most often do) occur within the context of work or social groups that may serve to exacerbate the dispute, or to moderate its effects. Campus conflicts also often involve multiple primary parties who all have a stake in the issues. It can be difficult to bring these kinds of conflicts to closure unless the entire group is involved at some level. A number of different approaches can be useful for this purpose.

Group Facilitation Services

On a growing number of campuses, for free or a small fee, neutral trained facilitators are made available to groups who are about to engage in critical decision-making meetings, meetings on controversial topics, or in problem-solving sessions where some outside support could be helpful. The concept of facilitation support is often accepted by troubled groups more easily than a formal mediation process might be.

In addition to running general meetings, facilitators may offer more specialized services that meet very specific needs. For instance, strategic planning facilitators may assist a group in moving through a structured planning process, helping them reach consensus on the future directions of their unit. Some departments or divisions host annual retreats and facilitators help develop the agenda and staff the meetings. Sessions like these provide a good opportunity to explore many conflict-generating issues.

Process Consulting Models

Another useful method, particularly when addressing organizational or departmental conflict, is commonly known as process consulting. Process consulting emerged from the organizational development field, building on the work of Edgar Schein and others. It is essentially a method of group problem solving that addresses issues and themes that are hindering the optimal functioning of the group. Campuses are now seeing the value of this kind of approach. Rather than treating the consultant as the expert with the answers, issues to be explored are surfaced using data-gathering procedures such as individual interviews or surveys that gather the thoughts and perspectives of all members of the group. The responses to the questions are then pooled (with the identifying information removed) and presented in a feedback session to the group as a series of themes or issues that the group is dealing with. The group, with the aid of a facilitator, reviews and interprets the data, formulating action plans as necessary to deal with issues of concern that have been surfaced. Quite often, groups decide to engage in some kind of additional training in communication skills or conflict resolution methods as part of their action plans.

Generic Interventions

Another group-level approach, often used by campus ombuds, is what is known as the generic approach. This model is generally used to respond to concerns about the behavior of specific members of a unit or department, without directly confronting them or identifying the complainants who brought the concern forward. Usually this involves a presentation, film or distribution of materials made at a regular staff or faculty meeting, or perhaps at a specially called session. The session typically addresses appropriate norms or procedures (for instance sexual harassment, humor in the workplace, or use of support staff) related to an area of concern. The suggestion for the educational presentation is often framed by the ombuds or some other appropriate administrator as a normal part of the ongoing life of the university, rather than as a response to specific complaints from within the department. The general goal is to protect complainants from possible retaliation, while reinforcing expectations for appropriate behavior.

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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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© 2000-2005 William C. Warters & WSU, All rights reserved.