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Volume 3, Number 1, Oct 2002

Similarities and Differences Between Campus Ombudsing and Mediation

by Tim D. Griffin
Northern Illinois University

Each campus community is a unique environment, not only physically but in terms of its organizational behaviors and culture. On every campus, however, the achievement of institutional and personal goals is dependent upon the effective and efficient interaction among the individuals comprising the whole. These individuals inevitably encounter barriers to their functioning resulting from their interactions with others and with institutional policies, procedures, and cultural norms. Two services established in part to minimize the negative effects of such barriers at colleges and universities are mediation centers and ombuds offices. Each of these services fulfills a somewhat different set of needs depending upon the characteristics of the particular institution.

This paper identifies and discusses some of the similarities and differences between mediation centers and ombuds offices on college and university campuses. Both types of services are relatively new additions to the higher education environment, evolving only in the past few decades. Neither service has become pervasive-each having a presence on only a few hundred campuses worldwide. However, even this rate of appearance in organizations notoriously slow to adopt change represents a truly rapid profusion. Comparing and contrasting these two similar yet distinct functions is done here through a discussion of their histories, internal organizational affiliations, missions, service clientele and practitioners, and types of services provided.


The first university ombuds offices were established in the late 1960s (Packwood, 1977). Designed as a response to the student unrest of that era, the ombudsperson acted primarily as a conduit for conflict resolution communications between administrations and groups of disaffected students (Mundinger, 1967). There was a rapid profusion of ombuds offices, resulting in the establishment of around two hundred such offices by 1973 (Drew, 1973), a number that has remained relatively steady. The ombuds role almost immediately shifted from its primary focus of responding to student group complaints to assisting individuals in problem solving their university-related concerns, identifying and communicating needed changes in institutional policies and procedures, and expanding clientele to include faculty and staff services (Rule, 1993; Griffin, 1995).

Campus mediation centers first began to appear in the 1980s (Rule, 1993). The first of these services emerged primarily from conflict resolution academic programs and were based on the community mediation model (Girard, et al, 1985). During the 1990s the number of campus mediation programs and centers grew steadily. Some were established as independent offices, but many were closely associated with, or a part of, student judicial offices, law schools, counseling centers, residence halls, and other academic and service offices (Warters, 1995). Over two hundred mediation centers and programs exist today (Warters, 2000).

Since the inception of ombuds offices and mediation centers on campus, and throughout their evolution, both have generally held neutrality and confidentiality as fundamental principles. Both fields have also evidenced significant variety in their functions and services as new professions seeking to define themselves through the establishment of appropriate operational parameters and within the niches available in their respective institutions. Finally, both mediation centers and ombuds offices have been established disproportionately on the campuses of large universities compared to smaller institutions of higher education.

Internal Organizational Affiliations

Campus mediation centers are commonly affiliated with one or more other campus offices or programs, either through formal administrative reporting lines or strong operational ties. These connections quite naturally develop with academic programs such as conflict resolution, peace studies, and law (Bosky, 1995; Jones, 1998). These academic programs frequently provide mediation services to members of the campus and broader community as a means to provide practical experience to their students as well as to fulfill a service component of their missions. Non academic programs, like judicial affairs, housing, student legal services, and human resource services, also provide excellent opportunities for direct provision of, or close association with, mediation services. These networks of affiliations allow the function to pervade the institutional culture, providing broad-based support and a steady stream of clientele both of which are crucial to the success and effectiveness of the mediation program.

By contrast, ombuds offices actively avoid such formal affiliations with other organizational entities. Independence from any specific department, or even from any single administrative division, is a crucial and fundamental necessity for ombuds services. The University and College Ombuds Association Standards of Practice emphasize the importance of this issue. Such independence is necessary for the maintenance of neutrality, both in practice and in perception, when addressing issues of broad organizational or administrative concern. Community perceptions of confidentiality are also jeopardized by such affiliations. For example, an employee wishing to discuss workplace or supervisory concerns may be reluctant to trust the objectivity and confidentiality provided by an ombudsperson who reports to the same supervisor. Perhaps one of the few internal affiliations with an ombuds office that is not likely to be problematic in this regard is that of mediation services, potentially another neutral and confidential campus resource (Guerra & Flinchbaugh, 1993).

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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.

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Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
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