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Conflict Management in Higher Ed Report
printfriendlyVolume 3, Number 3, May 2003

An Application of the
Transactional View: A Unique
Role for Ombudsmen in
Campus Protest

Editor's Note: This article, originally written in 1989, appeared in the Campus Ecologist, Volume VII, No 2, and is reprinted with permission.

The person-environment relationship from a transactional point of view is more than spatial. It is more than the person being situated in the environment (''in the way ships are in bottles" Tibbetts and Easer, 1973). The person-environment relationship is a transactional one where person and environment are mutually defining and redefining.

Important to this transactional relationship is the influence of assumptions and intentional factors on perception. Hastorf and Cantril's (1954) classic case study entitled "They Saw a Game: A Case Study" illustrates this point. Tibbetts and Esser (1973) give the following summary:

"The 'Case Study' deals with a football game between two traditional rivals, Dartmouth and Princeton, and the extent to which school affiliation biased what a student perceived. As might be expected, there were no 'impartial observers'; students from the two schools literally saw different occurrances on the playing field. When films of the game were later shown, students from the two schools could not in fact even agree as to when there were infractions of the rules, ..." page 445

The authors summarize by quoting Hastorf and Cantril: ''The significance assumed by different happenings for different people depend in large part on the purpose people bring to the occasion and the assumptions they have of the purpose and probable behavior of other people involved". The practical application of this transactional view is embodied in the observer program at the University of Colorado in Boulder .

The Observer Program

Two years ago (i.e. in 1987) the Ombudsman Office at the University of Colorado created an observer program for the Boulder campus. The observer program idea originated at the University of California-Berkeley many years ago during an era when student protest was common. The program uses volunteers, trained in neutral observation, to enter a crowd of protesters and make written observations of ''critical incidents." A critical incident is defined as a situation where there is potential damage to person or property. The impetus for the observer program at the University of Colorado came from the police department after several of the key personnel from the department consulted with the campus police department at the University of California Berkeley.

One of the unique values of the observer program is that it provides protection for all groups involved in protest activities who "need to know." Such groups might include: student protesters, community protesters, police officers, media personnel, administrators, counterprotesters, and those that the protesters may be directing their actions towards (campus recruiters, regents, administrators, student political groups, etc.). Although police may photograph or videotape incidents for use in prosecution, media may capture the flavor of the protest, and administrators may observe an overall demonstration, the written observations offer detailed up-close observation. These reports have come to represent a truly neutral perspective of what may have happened between conflicting parties.

Role of Ombudsman Office

The Director of the Ombudsman Office coordinates the observer program. Coordination involves selection and training of volunteer observers, negotiating with administrators and police around the need for observers, contacting observers to request their presence at an event, supervising observers during their work, providing refreshments, briefing observers before an event, discussing with police and other campus officials observer access to the vicinity of the event and holding rooms in the case of arrests, providing appropriate identification for observers so they may cross police lines and enter other secured environments, receiving and responding to requests for observer reports, responding to media inquiries. The Ombudsman Office staff does not serve as actual observers. (2003 Editor's note: the Ombuds office at UC Boulder no longer manages the report documents or the media contacts, these are handled by a senior Student Affairs administrator with ombuds training.)

Role and Training of Observers

Observers are selected from staff on campus. Staff were chosen as opposed to students and faculty because of the flexibility in their schedules which students and faculty lack. Types of people from the staff ranks who have served as observers include: assistant to the vice chancellor, assistant director of admissions, director of academic media, bursar, director of the student health center, director of risk management, tuition classification officer, personnel specialist, recreation center coordinator, accountant. Observers are given release time, similar to serving on a committee, from their routine work. They are often called at the last minute (since many protests are unannounced). They are required to meet at a certain location, listen to a short briefing, and observe. Some situations may be peaceful and therefore uneventful and others may require several hours of intensive work. Observer reports are turned in shortly after the event.

Observers are trained once or twice a year. Training is provided by the Ombudsman Office with guest presenters from the media relations department and campus police department. Training topics include: overview of civil disobedience, police tactics, interacting with the press, neutral observation skills, report writing, and observer program mechanics.

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