The Ombuds Office: Your Go-To Resource for Solving Conflicts
Q&A with SBU Ombudsperson Judi Segall
The Stony Brook University Ombuds Office may be one of the best-kept secrets on campus. It offers a safe place for all members of the University community, including students, faculty and staff, to voice their concerns and explore options for productive conflict management and resolution.
Judi Segall has served as Stony Brook University Ombudsperson since 1997. She also served as president of the University and College Ombuds Association for two terms, as an officer and then president of the Ombudsman Association, and as the first president of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA). She remains involved in strategic planning and professional development activities for IOA.
Segall recently answered questions about the Ombuds Office, what it offers to all members of the Stony Brook community, and why she chose this field as a career.
Q: What is an ombudsperson?
Segall: An organizational ombudsperson is an impartial, independent, confidential and informal resource for any member of the University community seeking assistance or information in pursuit of resolution of a concern or problem related to their work, study, engagement or experience with the University. As a designated neutral, the ombudsperson will consider all sides of an issue and may advise, offer informal mediation or shuttle diplomacy, coach or refer to other University resources to assist in developing satisfactory options for problem resolution.
Stony Brook is larger than many small cities — it is expected we will have differing views, perspectives, miscommunication and conflict. To support the success of all members of this community, it is important to have the full spectrum of problem-solving capacities — both formal and informal — available to assist all cohorts of the campus community.
Q: Who can use the services of the Ombuds Office?
Segall: The services are open to all Stony Brook students, faculty, staff and any community member or individual who might have a concern or inquiry related to the University. The Ombuds Office does not deal with inquiries on matters external to the operations or function of the University.
Q: When is it appropriate to meet with the ombudsperson?
Segall: There is no wrong time to engage the ombudsperson. Optimally it is most useful to consult in the earlier stages of a concern or conflict — this generally helps avoid conflict escalation and promotes effective outcomes. Often individuals contact the Ombuds Office for information clarification and option exploration. The principles by which an ombudsperson works are based on voluntary engagement, allowing visitors to own their concern and the solutions. Ultimately, the decision as to how to move forward in addressing a concern rests with the visitor, not the ombudsperson.
Q: Who will know if I contact the Ombuds Office?
Segall: All contacts with the Ombuds Office are considered confidential in accordance with the International Ombudsman Association Standards of Practice. The Ombuds Office will not record or report the names of visitors to the office and will not act without the permission of the person bringing the information to the office, except in the exceptional case where the ombudsperson determines a threat of imminent risk of harm.
Q: What can I expect when I meet with the ombudsperson?
Segall: First and foremost, you can expect an opportunity to share your concerns in a wholly respectful environment. As a designated neutral, the ombudsperson will listen to all sides of an issue and may advise, refer, coach, provide feedback or assist in exploring options. Visitors can be assured they are receiving unbiased feedback and assistance directed at developing productive and fair options for resolution.
Q: What can’t the ombudsperson do?
Segall: The Ombuds Office does not maintain records or serve as an office of record. We do not represent individuals in any formal proceedings or process, nor do we conduct or participate in any formal investigations or processes. We do not offer legal advice or provide psychological counseling. Given our informal, impartial and independent role, we do not establish, change or set aside policies or formal administrative processes.
Q: What kinds of problems are brought to your office, and by whom?
Segall: A sampling of the kinds of concerns visitors bring to our office include academic issues, interpersonal difficulties, workplace disputes, ethical dilemmas, conflicts of interest, disciplinary matters, research misconduct, incivility or rudeness, health and safety concerns, housing concerns, policy violations. Individuals from every corner of the University have visited the Ombuds Office — undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, faculty at every level and from disciplines throughout the institution, chairs of departments, supervisors, support staff and administrators.
Q: What kind of training is necessary for someone to become an ombudsperson?
Segall: While ombudsman practitioners come from a wide set of professional backgrounds, many move into this work from professions such as psychology, social work, organizational development and law. Generally speaking an advanced degree and some measure of administrative or organizational management experience is desired. Less tangible, but equally important, many move into this role as a result of their being “problem solvers” and systems thinkers within their disciplines, both of which are key attributes of an ombudsperson.
Anyone aspiring to do this work should complete credentialed foundational organizational ombudsman training. In addition, training in alternative dispute resolution and mediation is strongly recommended.
Q: Why did you choose to work in this area?
Segall: I chose to do this work for a variety of reasons — but most importantly because I believe it makes a significant and positive difference to the organization in which you work and to the individuals with whom you work. To support the enhanced capacities of individuals and organizations to manage conflict constructively (not destructively) is a valuable and worthwhile pursuit. When I work with students I know our engagements are a form of education and learning for them — fostering skills that will help them become “peace builders” and proponents of constructive conflict management. The same applies to working with faculty and staff. While challenging, and never easy, it is extremely rewarding work that I have always felt privileged to do.
The Ombuds Office is located in W-0505 Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library. Call 632-9200 for an appointment. For more information visit stonybrook.edu/ombuds.