Brandeis unveiled its new Ombuds service last week, and three university employees will provide confidential guidance to students regarding conflicts. Erika Smith, Elena Lewis and Brian Koslowski obtained multiple days of preparation in order to function as Brandeis University’s ombudsmen for the current spring semester.
The three employees will only hold interim positions through the office of Academic Services until they are integrated into the “structure in the office of the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion,” according to an email sent to students on Feb. 24.
The Ombuds on campus will act in accordance with four standards of practice consistent with the International Ombudsmen Association: confidentiality, neutrality, independence and informality. “Students who come to see us are met with pretty strict confidentiality,” said Smith at an information session on Tuesday where the ombuds employees introduced themselves and their service.
The only scenarios in which Ombuds are forced to report specific instances or complaints are when they involve threats imminent harm or reports of sexual misconduct. Brandeis’ Ombuds have gone to great lengths to preserve confidentiality by finding spots on campus to hold meetings where the purpose of the meeting will not be obvious to other students, and by installing curtains in rooms with glass walls.
The information session, though open to the public, was sparsely attended. Those who did come were given more insight into what functions the Ombudsmen will satisfy on campus. “The Ombuds role is a conflict resolution role,” explained Smith, who is also an Adjunct Lecturer at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
Brandeis’ Ombuds do not act as advocates for students who seek their assistance, but instead take a neutral stance. This holds true for conflicts between students, or conflicts between students and administration.
“Independence means we operate independent of any other office on campus,” explained Brian Koslowski, Associate Director of Academic Advising. Officially, the Ombuds report to the Office of the Provost, though this means reporting general trends instead of specific instances. Independence also means creating a safe space for students to share their concerns, brainstorm, problem solve and resolve a conflict.
Ombuds operate informally, outside of any formal processes of Brandeis. The three employees stressed that the Ombuds’ services are always off the record, and if notes are ever recorded with the permission of a student, the notes are later destroyed. Not being a part of any formal processes also means that the Ombuds are not a replacement for other Brandeis resources, like the Psychological Counseling Center. “We’re not here to tell you what to do or how to do it or how to resolve a problem, but we can talk through the different options,” said Lewis, Assistant Director of Student Support Services Programs.
Students at the meeting were invited to ask the Ombuds questions, and some raised the topic of student skepticism towards the administration. Since Smith, Lewis and Koslowski were already Brandeis faculty members before their training, some were concerned that the dual role will complicate the jobs of the Ombuds and that students may not feel comfortable coming forward to speak out against a colleague of one of the three Ombuds workers.
“We agreed to do this with understanding of all those nuances and intricacies and all of the things that could happen,” said Smith. She continued, “if someone felt comfortable coming to me and talking to me about something, I would act with the integrity of all those tenants,” referring to confidentiality, neutrality, independence and informality.
Attendees were also concerned about the requirement that Ombuds workers report trends to the Office of the Provost, especially involving conflict between students and administration. The three employees stressed that the reporting is done strictly in terms of trends, which involves any trends that are observable to the them, including critiques of their performances.
This was one of multiple information sessions that the Ombuds have hosted, and it will not be the last. Appointments can be made by phone or email, which are both listed at www.brandeis.edu/ombuds. The services will be provided by the Ombuds will be available for the rest of the Spring semester. “What’s great about this resource is that you’re in the driver’s seat,” said Lewis.