Researching Campus Conflict Management Culture(s): A Role For Ombuds?
piece, written in 1995, was originally published in the
Ombudsman: The Journal. While dated, the issues
it addresses are still relevant today.
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
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.
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)
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
project of Campus Conflict Resolution
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo
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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