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Volume 3, Number 1, Oct 2002

Researching Campus Conflict Management Culture(s): A Role For Ombuds?

by William Warters

This piece, written in 1995, was originally published in the UCI Ombudsman: The Journal. While dated, the issues it addresses are still relevant today.

Ombuds as Researchers?

The late Jim Laue, one of the conflict resolution community's most beloved practitioners and theorists, described a range of roles that conflict intervenors may play in any given dispute. The primary roles Laue (1978) identifies include those of activist, advocate, mediator, researcher, and/or rule enforcer. Each of these roles entails a different relationship to the parties involved in the conflict, and a different stance regarding the desirable conflict intervention process and outcomes. Discussions and written materials on college and university ombuds most often describe the ombuds as filling either the mediator, or perhaps less commonly, the advocate role, and tend to downplay or make invisible the researcher role, except as it manifests itself as fact-finding prior to engaging in other problem solving efforts.

My assumption is that ombuds practitioners don't often think of or describe themselves or their colleagues as researchers (in the more traditional academic sense) because this concept is potentially threatening to people who are counting on the confidentiality of the office and who fear exposure when research is shared with others. While good research preserves confidentiality when necessary, this reluctance is understandable given the type of sensitive cases ombuds often deal with. Ombuds may also be hesitant to define themselves as researchers due to concerns about clearly differentiating their role from that of members of the faculty, who typically see research as their domain. Finally, ombuds may not emphasize research simply due to time constraints created by the demands of managing all the other activities usually associated with an ombuds office.

For whatever reasons, I would argue that ombuds are not commonly thought of as researchers, and they do not picture themselves in this role. However, as the very existence of the ombuds journal suggests, ombuds are actively observing, reflecting on, theorizing about, and writing up their work, and appropriately sharing these ideas with colleagues. My purpose in this article is to briefly explore a somewhat expanded role set for the ombuds, one that includes the ombuds as researcher, a role that I think has tremendous potential value.

Building on the notion of "reflective practice" as discussed by Schon (1983) and Wallace (1994), I would like to suggest that we work on developing collaborative projects that bring together faculty in the field of conflict resolution with campus ombuds practitioners, wherein in the ombuds assist the faculty researchers in exploring some specific aspects of campus life and culture, and the researchers assist the ombuds in reflecting on their practice and refining their knowledge of their working environment.

This idea for more collaboration between ombuds and researchers is inspired in part by my current (now former) position as chair of the Higher Education Committee of the National Association for Mediation in Education (NAME). In this role, I interact with a wide range of campus conflict intervenors, and also with faculty and staff from the growing number of academic programs in dispute resolution. Recently I have become interested in exploring ways that these two groups can do more to support and learn from each other, since they share much in common, and bring unique strengths and perspectives that complement one another.

Why Study Campus Culture(s)?

While colleges as institutions are influenced by powerful external factors such as demographic shifts, economic changes, and political realignments, they are also shaped by strong internal forces. More and more, researchers and practitioners are looking at the social environments existing within organizations for clues for better understanding and improving their functioning. In a 1985 review of contemporary organizational studies, Ouchi and Wilkins stated that: "The study of organizational culture has become one of the major domains of organizational research, and some might even argue that it has become the single most active arena, eclipsing studies of formal structure, or organization-environment research, and of bureaucracy." (Ouchi, 1985, p. 458)

While the study of organizational culture (and a related concept known as climate) has become quite common in organizational research on businesses, there remains a relative lack of organizational culture research on higher education, especially as it relates to conflict and conflict management. A collaboration between ombuds and organizational researchers could help fill this gap.

Culture is important because it structures the way people perceive situations, and it effects the range of choices they consider when approaching conflict. Culture also tends to be somewhat invisible and taken for granted, so we may not recognize its influence until we have transgressed certain codes or conventions and have experienced negative outcomes as a result. Higher education researcher William Tierney (Tierney, 1988a) uses an interesting metaphor to discuss this issue. When asked for his advice on acting, Spencer Tracy once remarked, "Just know your lines and don't bump into the furniture." However, as Tierney correctly points out, "On the stage of organizational culture, such advice is wholly inadequate. Participants within collegiate cultures have few if any written scripts prepared by an author to go by. And as for the furniture, the most visible props--role and governance arrangements--are not the ones we tend to bump into. Rather, we most often trip over perceptions and attitudes, the intangibles that escape our attention even as they make up the fabric of daily organizational life." (Tierney, 1988a, p. 2)

The Research Approach

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz explains that, "Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." (Geertz, 1973, p. 5)

Following Geertz, given the subtleties of campus life, and the necessarily interpretive approach needed to study culture, I will advocate here for an ethnographic and qualitative approach to research that uses techniques developed by sociologists and anthropologists for studying people's "lived experience. According to Tierney, "An analysis of the organizational culture of a college or university must occur as if the institution were an interconnected web that cannot be understood unless one looks not only at the structure and natural laws of that web, but also at actors' interpretations of the web itself." (Tierney, 1988b, p. 4) This reality requires researchers to use techniques that get at people's perceptions and ways of making sense out of their interactions with others.

I suggest here that the ombuds is in a unique position to serve as a guide or "primary informant" (kind of like the character "Doc" in William F. Whyte's 1943 classic ethnography Street Corner Society) to researchers interested in campus organizational culture and subculture, especially as it relates to conflict-related behaviors and beliefs. Given their placement in the organizational structure and their function as problem investigators, interpreters or translators of policy, and referral sources, ombuds are in an unparalleled position to observe and understand organizational life in many different campus domains. Chaney and Hurst (Chaney, 1980) and Robbins and Deane (Robbins, 1987) both note the special position ombudsman programs occupy as environmental sensors. Chaney and Hurst write that "ombuds programs are in a unique position as one of the most revealing unobtrusive measures of stressors in the campus community", and Robbins and Deane conclude that "Data supplied to managers is normally filtered and condensed; not only is the process imperfect but information may be distorted for the purposes of influencing decisions. The ombuds receives unfiltered raw data from all levels and locations in the organization and does not have management responsibility. In our opinion, the potential usefulness of ombuds to an 'early warning system' has been under-utilized..."

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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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