New ombudsman looks to ensure office’s ‘reputation of trust’
September 14, 2010Tweet
Dawn Osborne-Adams might have been destined to be an ombudsman; her father actually served in the role for McDonald’s franchisees years ago.
“It may be in my blood,” she said with a laugh, “I may be genetically predisposed.”
Or, she might just have found her niche. With a legal background – she earned her juris doctor degree from New York University School of Law and has completed coursework in the master of laws in dispute resolution program at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law – she discovered that justice may prevail, but fairness might not.
“When I was working with judges as a law clerk, I got to see all of the behind-the-scenes activity and I saw enough cases where the decision did not adequately address the underlying problem,” she said. “Sometimes you could see that although a conflict had escalated to the point of litigation and consumed significant resources along the way, in the end, the judicial system just wasn’t the right forum for addressing the underlying issues.”
As a result, Osborne-Adams became interested in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and that led her to become trained as a mediator, working toward more party-driven processes to resolve issues.
Osborne-Adams, who began her duties at Binghamton on June 7, most recently managed the ADR program for the Central District of California, the largest federal trial court in the nation. Prior to coming to Binghamton, she was also affiliated with the University of California, Riverside Ombudsman Office. Her role at Binghamton is to provide neutral, confidential and informal assistance to all members of the University community.
“The program I ran in California used ADR in the context of litigated cases, but I became interested in the beginning of the spectrum,” she said. ”Where does the conflict start? This work is not preventative, because conflict is inevitable, but an ombudsman can play a crucial role in helping to manage and deescalate conflict.
”I like dealing with the interpersonal issues and getting to where I understand each perspective and can help visitors do the same,” she added. “If I sit down with two people, I can sometimes see the understanding visibly unfold through body language, a change in facial expression or even just a difference in tone.”
The nature of the ombudsman’s office is to be impartial, so Osborne-Adams has a duty to ensure she is not aligned to any one office or individual on campus. She’s a member of the International Ombudsman Association and adheres to the IOA’s Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics. She understands the importance of providing equal access and engaging with the campus community in a way that doesn’t create a conflict of interest, create policy or involve the office in formal processes.
Osborne-Adams has been busy getting to know the campus – and jumping right into her role.
“People have continued to come in and I’ve been busier over the summer than I anticipated,” she said. “I really do think that with the changes the University is going through, there’s just a need. People need a safe space where they can think through options, talk confidentially about an issue, get an objective opinion or have someone check into procedures when they’re not comfortable doing so themselves.
“The nature of this position is related to trust, and that’s part of why I came to this particular office. This office was set up according to the standards of practice and has enjoyed a good reputation in the field and on campus,” she added. “I owe a debt of gratitude to all of the ombudsmen who have come before me here. This office does have a reputation of trust – as a place where problems can be heard and as a place of integrity.
”I want people to realize the role has lots of dimensions and it has a complexity to it where I put on different hats depending upon what the visitor needs,” Osborne-Adams said. “This is a good office of first resort. It’s better to come here earlier rather than later if you’re not sure where else to go.”
What she does can also help people as they move forward. “I helped a student recently. The student did the work and I was the guide,” she said. “There was a really favorable result and I came out of it thinking that the student learned such a good lesson – that you don’t always have to fight for what you want. That there are ways to approach problem solving in a collaborative, non-confrontational way and that student will always remember that lesson.”
Do ombudsmen have an impact? “It’s hard to quantify, but there’s definitely an impact, on both a micro-individual level and on the macro-organizational level,” Osborne-Adams said. “And the field is growing as organizations and institutions understand that this role is a valuable supplement to ethics, compliance, conflict resolution and general quality of life efforts.
“The other part of the job – this will happen more over time and I’m looking forward to it – is that I’m constantly gathering all this information about morale, and taking the temperature of the campus,” she said. ”I have a bird’s eye view and can give useful feedback on trends and the need for systemic change.”
Osborne-Adams also believes her legal background provides her with an analytical ability that is very useful when people get mired in a space where the obvious becomes invisible to them.
“People in the midst of a conflict often do what a colleague of mine calls ‘kitchen sinking it’ – they bring up everything and eventually lose sight of what is most important to them or what might be relevant in terms of looking at policies and procedures. My legal training helps me sift through the issues,” she said. “It also provides me with a resourcefulness that’s very useful. I’m new here and often don’t know the answer, but I feel certain I can find it.”
“If I do the job well, not many people will know that I was ever involved in a particular situation,” she said, and that’s satisfying to her. “The satisfaction I get from interacting with visitors is more than enough for me.
For more information on the Office of the University Ombudsman, visit http://www2.binghamton.edu/ombudsman/.