Ombuds bring confidential resource to Brandeis community

September 28, 2018

The Brandeis University Ombuds office provides a unique and necessary resource to all members of the Brandeis community. Ombudsman, or Ombuds, are officials who represent the interests of the public through investigation and addressing complaints of issues within administration or a violation of rights.

The Ombuds office originally began as part of the list of demands that were brought forth by the 2015 Ford Hall student protests. At that time, the Ombuds were only for student use, and have since expanded. The main purpose of the Ombuds office is to be an intermediary between the voices of the students and staff and the administration. Since the services are open to anyone, Ombuds are able to collect information from a larger group of people and report back to the administration any serious issues that may need to be addressed.

The Ombuds act as neutral informants who are a resource to talk to if an individual has any type of problem. Ombuds, by definition, do not give legal advice or information, though they may give referrals if they deem necessary. No reports are saved during the confidential conversations and noise machines surround the rooms to prevent outsiders from hearing the conversations.

All Ombuds are required to be certified through the International Ombudsman Association through a vigorous application process that includes a written exam, a minimum of 2000 hours in Ombuds experience and a bachelor’s degree. At Brandeis, there are three certified Ombuds to help the community.

Don Greenstein is the newest addition to the Ombuds office, having joined in December of 2018. Greenstein has over 29 years of experience in conflict resolution process to meet the needs of the public. Outside of Brandeis, Greenstein is also affiliated with the Boston Law Collaborative and is an adjunct professor with the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Medical Professionals, and a Reservist Ombuds with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for disaster response.

“I was especially drawn to Brandeis because it was such a great institution,” said Greenstein. “Everyone understands the matter of social justice and working together with people to realize they can’t do it themselves is extremely fulfilling.”

Cathy Burack is another Ombuds on campus. She is a senior fellow for higher education at the Center for Youth and Communities (CYC) in the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, in addition to her position in the Ombuds office.

Burack wanted to become an Ombuds, similar to Greenstein, to promote the idea of social justice in the community. “Being an Ombuds is a way for me to support Brandeis’ social justice mission without any single individual having to put themselves on the line to make change,” said Burack. “I just really like supporting people and helping them be their best selves here.”

Elana Lewis started at Brandeis in 2004 and is the current director of the Student Support Services Program (SSSP). She contributes to faith-based nonprofit programs where she trains and mentors students in various spiritual disciplines. She has been the student Ombuds at Brandeis for two years. Lewis serves as an Ombuds for student support only, while Greenstein and Burack can provide support for any individuals.

Based on the appointments and people seen, each quarter the Ombuds office reports any general trends that are seen through the individuals that come through the office for any administrative actions that may need to be taken. There is also an annual report that comes out which speaks about the commonalities between reports during the fiscal year.

“We’re an early warning system. When we start to see a common trend that we think could cause harm, we let the administration know so they can take care of it,” said Burack.

Burack went on to comment about the common disbelief that Ombuds protect people’s confidentiality, which Burack assured was completely true. Individuals are able to book either 75 or 90 minute sessions with an Ombuds. Their office is conveniently located within Library Services so outside patrons will not know that the individual is coming to the Ombuds office.

Once in the appointment, the Ombuds will explain the process of their conversation. There are four components that separate the Ombuds office from others. The first is the confidentiality. According to the Ombuds website, “Information shared by visitors will never be disclosed without a visitor’s permission except as required by law or when the Ombuds determines there may be an imminent risk of serious harm.” The only time an Ombuds is required to call back-up is if the individual makes indication that they plan on doing harm to themselves or another.

Next is neutrality. Ombuds do not advocate for any group when an individual comes to the office. They only advocate for productive communication and fair processes, according to the Ombuds website. The Ombuds office is also an independent structure that does not report to the administration and the Ombuds office does not participate in any administrative processes. It is truly a safe space, which was emphasized by both Burack and Greenstein.

After the information is presented to the individual, they are free to talk. “We see things through until you’re content,” explained Burack. “Even if it takes multiple sessions, we will always be here for you.”

Since the office is so new, the Ombuds team is working on ways to market their services to students and faculty. “We’re underused because no one really understands what we do,” explained Greenstein. “We’re trying really hard to market our office to make it more welcoming for people.”

Ombuds are resources for students and the Brandeis community to help facilitate conversations. “We help hold up the mirror to show you how strong you are,” said Burack. “We help you use the power you have to get yourself to a better place.” Greenstein added, “We stay engaged until you reach that place, if you want us there.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the Ombuds program or want to schedule an appointment, visit their website at https://www.brandeis.edu/ombuds/.

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