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Mediation and conflict resolution have become very popular in community settings, and some colleges and universities have created ombudsman positions. The ombudsman has many functions, and chief among them is serving as a mediator in faculty–administration disputes, faculty–faculty disputes, student–student disputes, and so forth.

Degree Required

No one degree is required to be an ombudsman. Though a law degree would seem to be a natural fit, it could be argued that counseling is another viable degree. Because ombudsmen are mediating disputes, they must be able to elicit a two-way dialogue and be able to entice both parties to compromise; the types of communication techniques taught in counseling programs would seem good training. Marriage and family counselors are especially trained and adept at facilitating dialogue between spouses and partners, and the same set of skills can be applied in mediation. I would recommend additional training and possible certification in mediation. Mediation training is offered in some degree programs at 2- and 4-year colleges, and by private professionals. Counselors can often earn continuing education units needed to maintain licensure and national certification.

Issues to Understand

Mediation is similar to, though very different from, counseling. While the goals of both are similar—more open communication, teaching compromise, providing a venue for disputing parties to address their complaints, and so forth—the ombudsman is only concerned with dispute resolution and not addressing underlying psychological issues. The ombudsman provides a neutral part to campus parties enmeshed in conflicts they have been unable to resolve on their own. Some common types of disputes are money matters, conflict within student organizations, conflict between two faculty members, disputes between a department chair (or dean) and a professor, and so on. Essentially, the ombudsman provides a means of resolving conflicts that might escalate to expensive litigation or fester into poisonous relations between different campus factions.

Anyone interested in becoming an ombudsman must be comfortable in addressing conflict. My own experience as a mediator both in higher education and in community mental health is that most people struggle in addressing conflict. The ombudsman must come to see her or his role as simply the instrument between the conflict (or conflicts) and be able to refrain from taking sides (Barsky, 2007).

Best Aspects of the Job

One of the most rewarding parts of mediation is the realization that you are assisting people in resolving conflicts that would otherwise escalate into larger and more damaging conflicts. My own experience is also that ombudsmen feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in providing a service that most professionals would likely shy away from. Ombudsmen who demonstrate effectiveness will also be very much in demand, as campuses by their very nature (a large number of people holding diverse opinions, values, and ideas) will naturally have many conflicts. Fortunately, most conflicts do not escalate into needing the services of a professional mediator, but some will.

Challenging Aspects of the Job

There are many challenges to the role of ombudsman. First, you are working with people in distress and they may be very angry and project that anger onto you, the professional. Effective ombudsmen will need to be able deflect and redirect anger in appropriate directions so that it can facilitate a reduction in animosity. Ombudsmen will also be subject to allegations of showing favoritism by one or even both parties in a dispute. The ombudsman also needs to be very skilled at moving dialogue along when it becomes bogged down and countereffective.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the campus ombudsman’s job lies in the fact that he or she works in an enclosed system (the campus) where there are so many intertwined relationships. You may be called upon to mediate a dispute between your boss’s spouse and another faculty member, or perhaps you find yourself mediating an ugly dispute between two faculty members you have worked with on campus committees and whom you respect. Ombudsmen will also have to grapple with very challenging and destructive accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth. It is no stretch to state that the ombudsman role is one few counselors or other professionals are eager to take on.

Occupational Outlook and Salary

As no statistics are listed by the BOLS, I would counsel interested readers to contact a campus ombudsman. (This position may be called a “campus mediator” on some campuses.) Campus ombudsmen are likely to be employed at larger campuses (say, 10,000 FTE and above), though it should be mentioned that the human resources office on many campuses may designate staff members to serve in this role, though their job title may be something like assistant director or mediator. For an estimate on salary, it is likely the range would run from $35,000 to $55,000 depending on the size of the institution and the experience of the ombudsman.

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