In the aftermath of the crops incident at Cal Poly, students congregated at a forum to openly discuss the tensions stirring on and off campus. Cal Poly President Warren Baker said there might not have been adequate channels to address or voice student concerns, even to communicate frustrations. Baker said he wanted to establish a platform to help students navigate through to find their way.
“When you don’t know where to go or who to ask, we are your resource,” said David Conn, associate vice president for inclusive excellence and director of Ombuds services at Cal Poly, one of many Ombuds programs that exist within education systems and business models around the world. (see Map of Ombuds programs in California)
Cal Poly’s Ombuds services is now open for students to voice ideas, disputes and frustrations in a confidential and informal setting. Essentially, the Ombuds initiative responds to Baker’s trepidation in theory, though no students have been counseled yet.
Patricia Ponce, associate ombuds, is stationed at the helm of the Ombuds services. Available to walk-in’s and by appointment, Ponce will be the person working with students before referring the issue to another department or individual with the student’s consent. Her office, located in Robert E. Kennedy Library, works in tandem with the president’s office.
National ombuds come from many backgrounds: student development, counseling, educational, legal and mediation to name just a few. “I attended a week-long training from the International Ombuds Association and possess a bachelor’s degree in social work, two master’s: one in counseling and the other in education and a Ph.D. in education concentrating in higher education from UCLA,” Ponce said.
Ombuds adhere to four foundational principles: independence, confidentiality, impartiality and informality. Ombuds services, belonging to the International Ombudsman Association, take confidentiality very seriously.
But there are limits. Of course, if students disclose information that could bring harm to themselves or anyone else, authorities would be notified.
“If you admitted that you sliced your roommate’s tires because of a conflict, that would not violate the confidentiality agreement,” Ponce said. “I wouldn’t need to contact anyone.”
Administrative officials expect student confusion on how ombuds differ from a college counselor or advisor.
“The Oombuds office is a place where students can go to get assistance to resolve conflicts, personal or academic,” Ponce said.
A Swedish word, ‘ombudsman’ means a representative. But Cal Poly ombuds, the gender-neutral term adopted, will neither investigate nor exercise any authority.
“We don’t keep any individual records, but in the first instance, we would help the personal grievance by seeing if there is anything we can do, for example, look at free speech or an academic policy,” Conn said. “It’s a relatively obscure position but becoming more and more common.”
Cal Poly had an ombuds program more than 11 years ago. It served only staff and faculty at that time. In 1999, Sean Banks, university ombudsman, left Cal Poly to work at the University of California, Los Angeles’s ombudsman office. He is now Director of RESOLVE and company ombuds for the Shell Oil Company.
Cal Poly has referenced other ombuds programs’ structures and philosophies to design one that works best for its community.
“It’s a lot like earthquake planning,” Conn said. “Not thought of until something happens.”
No paper trail will exist except for a short form that includes a student’s area of study, gender, type of issue and other statistical data to provide trend information for the president’s office to make changes and react accordingly. Because confidentiality is vital to the operation of this service, some offices, like the University of California, Santa Barbara, ombuds don’t even correspond through e-mail, as it is not considered a confidential medium.
Administrators expect Ombuds Services to exist for at least a two-year trial period. Currently, the program is inadequately funded, Conn told the Associated Student Inc. Board of Director at a recent board meeting.
With President Baker retiring and a new candidate taking office in the near future, “It’s conceivable that a new president could throw (the ombuds program) out,” said Conn. “But most likely, they would give it a chance.”