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Ombudsperson a resource for students, faculty, staff to resolve student-related concerns

Russ White
Shannon Lynn Burton

Shannon Lynn Burton is Michigan State University's ombudsperson. October 11 is Ombuds Day.

The office assists students in resolving conflicts or disputes within the university. They help staff members, instructors, and administrators sort through university rules and regulations that might apply to specific student issues and concerns.

Russ White:I'm Russ White for MSU Today. Shannon Lynn Burton is MSU's ombudsperson, taking over the role in July 2018. She's been working in the office, though, for six years as assistant and associate ombudsperson.

Shannon Lynn Burton: I've been here at MSU for a total of 18 years working in that space with students where they're trying to understand the university, really trying to navigate its systems as well as the requirements. I was an academic advisor here prior to moving into these roles.

One of the reasons I was drawn to being an ombudsperson was because I really saw it as a unique space to really affect students' success in the sense that students are dealing with a conflict with a professor, they're not sure how to handle it, they're dealing with another conflict in the organization. All of these things can really impact their ability to succeed in their classes as well as complete their degrees here at Michigan state and their overall impression and feel of their experience here at the university. I really see being in this space and helping students learn to better navigate conflict with the institution and conflict with one another and their faculty as a space to really build their capacity as global citizens and as members of our community.

White:What is an ombudsperson, and what does he or she do?

Burton:Ombudsperson is actually a Swedish term, and our role is to be a designated neutral within the organization to help students resolve conflicts in the university. We certainly also work with faculty and staff when they're navigating a difficult situation with a student. I want to make sure they're approaching that student in the right way and working through the university policies and procedures appropriately.

White:The work that Burton does is founded on four of what she calls standards of practice. 
Burton:First, our office is completely confidential. I often tell visitors that, when they come into my office, anything they tell me does not leave my office walls unless I have their written permission, I believe there's imminent risk or harm, or I'm compelled by law.

Secondly, as I said before, I'm a neutral, so I don't speak for the university, but I'm not an advocate for students either. What I am is an advocate for fairness and due process within the university systems.

Third, I'm informal, so what I try to do is help individuals build their capacity to resolve conflict informally. How do we have those conversations? How do we manage our emotions when we're dealing with those difficult things? Then I also advise them as to what those formal policies and procedures look like and what those formal processes look like if they feel like, after our conversation or after trying to solve the problem informally, they need to engage with those systems.

Then, finally, our office is independent, so what that means is our office reports directly to the office of the president so that we can question what's going on inside the university, so that we can look for those systemic trends and systemic issues that might not be being addressed at other levels of the organization so that we can make sure that those are being addressed. And we make recommendations based on those trends that we see here in the office. What that means, in terms of what we don't do, again, I said I'm not an advocate for students. I am an advocate for fairness and due process so, in that space, what I would do is help students figure out how to advocate for themselves. There are occasional situations where I feel like a situation where an individual in a situation may not have enough agency to deal with the problem at hand, where I'll ask them to waive confidentiality so that I can do some shuttle diplomacy and work between the faculty member, the academic unit, and the student to resolve the situation. But we're not mediators. We aren't here to mediate issues between individuals. We're there to get them to come together and really learn to talk to one another and really address concerns in that way.

White:A lot of people don't fully understand what Burton does. 

Burton:About 80 percent of what we deal with in this office is academic in nature. So a student feels like they've been wrongly charged of academic misconduct or they have a grade dispute with a professor. When we're dealing with those concerns, one of the myths we often see is students saying that the syllabus is a contract with the faculty member. Unfortunately, a syllabus is not a legal document. It is not a contract with the faculty member. A faculty member, under what we call the Code of Teaching Responsibility, does have the opportunity to change what's in the syllabus. What is kind of that defining document for students in terms of that relationships with faculty is that Code of Teaching Responsibility. That Code of Teaching Responsibility outlines nine areas that a faculty member needs to provide, at a minimum, to students in the classroom to really make that learning environment a positive one for students in the classroom. That's one of those myths that we see here.

White:In our technology-obsessed culture, are your services needed now more than ever?

Burton:If you look at our numbers historically, the numbers of students and individuals we see in the office has remained pretty steady over the last 10 years or so. But what I would say is a lot of the students who I see and even faculty and staff, quite truthfully, really want to address conflict through email, through those technological means, and not really talk to one another, not go to office hours, not talk to the student after class, or the student not calling the professor to resolve the conflict. A lot of times, when there's that hesitancy to address the conflict face to face, it can actually escalate the conflict. One of the things that we try to do here is help individuals be comfortable in that face-to-face conversation so that they can really engage in a proactive, positive way around the issue that they're dealing with.

White:October 11th is the first Ombuds Day put forth by the American Bar Association.

Burton:This is really a big deal for the ombuds community because we're one of those lesser-known spaces when it comes to alternative dispute resolution. To have the ABA recognize the work that we do, in terms of the spectrum of conflict services that are out there, is really a big deal and really something that we want to highlight as an organization here at Michigan State. Our ombuds office has been a leader in the field for many years, being the longest-standing ombuds office at any college or university here in the United States as well as having previous ombuds serve in leadership roles. Our second ombudsperson, Dr. Carolyn Stieber, was the very first president of the former University and College Ombudsman Association. So we really take that leadership role to heart and really do have a really good legacy of providing these types of service to our campus community.

White:What do you want people to know about ombudspersons and what you do?

Burton:I think what we want to reinforce is that we are an active member of the university community here at Michigan State and that we are a resource for students, faculty, and staff on campus to come and resolve student-related concerns in a healthy way, that we're here to come and talk through problems to kind of brainstorm with them on the proper way to address one another, on the proper way to look at policies and procedures, as well as to have a space where they feel comfortable bringing issues to light where they may not feel comfortable in other spaces doing so.

White:Learn more at ombud.msu.edu

Burton:We really want to be a partner here in the campus community and teach individuals conflict resolution skills. It is helping and training both students and faculty and staff around the policies and procedures of the institution. We don't just want to be in that reactive space as an office. We really want to help individuals, in a weird way, engage in conflict before the conflict occurs so that we're not facing issues that have been exacerbated for too long or not addressed for a lengthy period of time. We really want to be on that side where we're being more proactive in our work.

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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