'The campus Google'
The Executive Committee of the Senate voted unanimously in favor of creating an Ombuds Office at Grand Valley State University during its meeting on Friday.
The office would be a conflict resolution and management resource for students, faculty and administrators seeking assistance. It would also be a place for members of the GVSU community to seek guidance on virtually any issue both school related and personal. The job of an ombudsperson is to listen to concerns and to offer options for resolving them.
Currently, GVSU and Ferris State University are the only two major universities in Michigan that don’t have an ombudsperson.
“We have grown so much as a university that structurally we are too complex an organization for people to find their way to the correct resources,” said Gretchen Galbraith, an associate professor of history at GVSU and a co-chairperson of the ombuds task force. “The job of the ombud is to find the appropriate venue to resolve a problem.”
The role of an ombudsperson is similar to Google, Galbraith said.
“An ombuds who is an expert of where to direct people is really performing the function of Google,” she said. “The campus google or facilitator. The navigator, getting the right person to the right place.”
There are four basic characteristics of an ombuds office. It is neutral, confidential, independent and informal.
“The ombuds is an absolutely neutral and impartial individual,” said Bob Frey, co-chairperson of the task force. “The idea being that if you’re going to be an individual sitting and trying to resolve conflicts between members of our community, you need to be someone who doesn’t favor one over another, brings no special biases to the table.”
This means that the ombudsperson cannot be a member of a particular college or a member of administration with other responsibilities. Since it would be an independent position, the task force recommends that the person only reports directly to the president.
“It can be frightening to think this powerful person is going to be making all kinds of decisions, but that’s not the case,” Frey said. “The ombudsman does not give legal advice, does not participate in any judicial processes, does not make policy decisions and does not accept legal notice.”
Meetings between an ombudsperson and a campus community member would be completely off the record. Reports to the president would only include trends, such as how many claims of sexual abuse there were at the university this year. The person would not report names or details but would be required to break confidentiality if he or she heard a report about a risk of homicide, suicide or sexual assault.
If a subpoena was filed, the court would prohibit the ombudsperson from testifying, said Frey. He added that courts in general support the idea of a separate, confidential office for people seeking help.
The idea for an ombuds office has been discussed at GVSU in the past. However, the Board of Trustees and the Senior Management Team did not pass the last proposal.
“We already have so many places for people to go get help and they thought it muddies the water more than it clarifies,” said Provost Gayle Davis.
Some believe the opposite, saying GVSU needs an ombuds office because of all the resources that are available.
“I think there are so many resources on campus and students are confused about where to go. They need a centralized place,” said Stephanie Ewart, vice president of Student Senate. “I’m in full support from the student aspect and I think this is wonderful.”
The proposal will be voted on by the University Academic Senate. If passed, it will get a second chance with the Board of Trustees.