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Volume 3, Number 1, Oct 2002

Researching Campus Conflict Management Culture(s): A Role For Ombuds? (page 2 of 3)

Focus on Campus Subcultures, Not University-wide Culture

It has long been noted that colleges and universities contain quite a range of relatively strong subcultures that are based on groupings marked by differences in age, ethnicity, discipline, work responsibilities, social affiliations, and organizational location. I would suggest that, rather than primarily focusing on case studies of conflict (which we all know can be quite instructive), or working to further document the basic activities of the ombuds office (a seemingly popular thesis topic in the early years when ombudsing was still somewhat "exotic"), we focus instead on developing greater understanding of the various subcultures on campus and how these groups manage conflict within their own networks and with others who fall outside their primary identity group. A few interesting examples along these lines (there aren't many yet) include Kay Harman's (Harman, 1989) examination of conflicts arising from tensions between professional versus academic values in professional schools, and Jim Schnell's (Schnell, 1985) look at conflict resolution within a greek letter organization.

Ombuds can provide a valuable window on the way conflicts get played out within universities, as well as a vantage point for exploring how the introduction of various dispute resolution services may in fact effect an organizational climate and culture over time. While I am not arguing that ombuds can ever truly know these various subcultures, they are certainly in a good position to explore what they do know, and then introduce the researcher to the right cultural informants to help them find out more.

Existing Research

There is already a small but growing base of general campus culture research that we might draw on as we develop our questions and approaches. A good summary of this work can be found in Tierney's (Tierney, 1988b) and Peterson and Spencer's (Peterson, 1991) reviews of this area of study. As they point out, the earliest work (in the 1960's) focused largely on the study of student cultures, and then in the 1970's, on distinctive colleges as cultures, the role of belief and loyalty in college organizations, and function of organizational sagas. More recent work has focused on the study of various academic cultures, leadership in different cultural settings, and the system of higher education itself as a culture.

It appears that interest in organizational culture on campus continues to develop. For example, New Directions for Institutional Research published a special "campus culture" issue in 1991 (Winter) encouraging university research officers to pay more attention to campus organizational cultural issues and use more cultural research approaches.

Areas for Further Study

A brief discussion of a number of potentially fruitful avenues for research are suggested below, although many more could be developed as well.

Campus Subcultures

As I have discussed above, a particularly fertile and relatively undeveloped area for research is the exploration of conflict management approaches used by various campus subcultures. As anthropologists and historians interested in dispute processing have noted, cultural subgroups have often developed internal methods of resolving disputes to protect their group from involvement by outside "authorities" or systems of laws that don't take into account their norms and values. Jerold Auerbach's book Justice Without Law (Auerbach, 1983) provides a fascinating account of alternative dispute resolution methods used in colonial America. These non-judicial approaches were successful as long as they involved individuals or groups who shared certain basic beliefs and who subscribed to shared norms of behavior. When conflicts emerged between individuals from different groups, or as group unity broke down, the use of lawyers and the common law became more prevalent. As Auerbach argues, "Law begins where community ends." Because of the existence of multiple subcultures on campus, the need for "organizational spaces" for cross-cultural (in the broadest sense) problem-solving forums such as ombuds programs or campus mediation centers may become even more clear as our understanding of campus subcultural norms for conflict management become better understood.

Indigenous Resources

Another interesting area of related research, and one where I think ombuds would play an important role, is in the identification of the "indigenous" problem-solvers who are found within various campus domains. Within any community, one can usually find individuals who, based on their interpersonal skills or social position, are frequently approached by people seeking problem-solving assistance. Ombuds often have contact with these members of the community, and could very likely assist researchers in identifying and then gaining access to these individuals for interviewing. Finding out more about how these parties do their conflict management work may provide ombuds with additional insight into how they might improve their own practice, and how they might further address supporting and empowering "homegrown" approaches to problem-solving.

Patterns of Conflict

Another important area where ombuds have access to useful knowledge is around patterns of conflict on campus. Because many ombuds programs already produce annual reports that share aggregate statistics, ombuds are likely to be quite familiar with and interested in patterns of conflict on campus. Careful interviewing by researchers might encourage ombuds to further reflect on their practice, exploring in more detail their perceptions of the patterns of conflict on campus, be they temporal, topical, or structural in nature. Increased understanding of these patterns should prove quite valuable when considering the development of conflict prevention efforts.

Potential Problems

While I am enthusiastic about the potential value of an increased research role by ombuds, I am aware that a number of potential problems could effect the success of such efforts. These problems might include the creation of suspicion and/or potential alienation of "clients" whom the ombuds decides to invite into the research, who are unhappy with the suggestion. Another difficulty might involve struggles between academics and ombuds over the focus of the research agenda, with academics attempting to usurp the agenda, leaving ombuds feeling somewhat taken advantage of. Another possible problem, familiar to ombuds, is the creation of additional time demands on already overtaxed ombuds staff who are asked to regularly reflect on their practice in the presence of a collaborating researcher.

Potential Benefits

I believe that the potential benefits of having ombuds more involved as researchers outweighs the potential problems. Potential benefits include improved practice, increased self-awareness, and perhaps additional legitimacy for ombuds practitioner, who often work in environments that privilege research. The collaborative approach I have started to outline here can also help to strengthen ties between ombuds and the growing number of academics interested in dispute processing.

Conclusions/Next Steps

In order to pursue this possible expansion of the ombuds role, a number of next steps might be considered. These include a greater elaboration and specification of the research agenda, compilation of a more complete bibliography of existing campus culture studies as they relate to conflict, and the development of dialogues on this issue between qualitative researchers and ombuds, either via email, or in person at some kind of workshop or conference session. Ombuds would need to identify additional areas of concern, and help develop research practices that respect existing campus relationships. Also, some decisions about how central a role the ombuds should play in the research will have to be worked out, as the ombuds could play an active role conducting interviews and gathering observational data, or they could serve in more of an informant and guide role, as seems appropriate given their individual situations.

As ombuds well know, conflict is a regular part of life on college and university campuses. Hopefully, more research and greater understanding of the dynamics of campus conflict will help us improve the delivery of dispute resolution services, learn from existing conflicts, and reduce the amount of time lost due to conflict that could be better put into the pursuit of teaching and learning.

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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.

Please send comments, bug reports, etc. to the Editor.

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