Om * buds * man: defined as a person who hears and attempts to resolve complaints and problems, as between students and a university.

The University is a very large and complex organization. As in any organization of this size and complexity, conflict is inevitable. As the University Ombudsman, students can visit me to talk about problems and disputes they are having with the University. I work individually with students (and sometimes with others across campus) to help them clarify issues and resolve conflicts. I also help the University identify systems, policies and procedures that can be improved. I am hoping this blog can be an opportunity to expand the conversation on campus about conflict and conflict management. 

Too often we only think about conflict when we are neck deep in one, when the way out seems unimaginable. And yet I do believe that we can all benefit from more intentional conversation about conflict. I hope you will join me in thinking and talking about conflict here at the University, and the ways we can use conflict to make this an even better place. I'll be sharing occasional thoughts about the practice of conflict management, the Ombuds role in that process, and specific issues that are on my mind. I invite you to join in that conversation.

Tom Lehker, University Ombudsman

Being Stuck on the Escalator

I came across this video several months ago and knew I had to write something about it. The situation offers insights into what can happen when we’re stuck in a difficult situation and a way forward does not seem immediately clear.

I noticed the immediate reactions of the people on the escalator when it broke down: feelings of anger, disbelief, and concern about the negative outcomes the situation will have for us. All too often, these feelings can get in the way of the ability to see potential outcomes, the feeling of (literally in this case) feeling immobile.


The Danger of a Single Story

As we begin to wind down the academic year, I wanted to share a Ted Talk that I have thought about a lot over the last year. The talk is by the noted author Chimamanda Adichie, and is titled “The Danger of a Single Story.”

Man on dock.

End-of-Semester Ombuds Referrals

As we pass Thanksgiving and move into December, the end of a semester may bring conflict situations into sharper focus. These may be conflicts that have been brewing for a while and are now reaching a critical point as the end of the term nears. Or these could be new situations that arise and require resolution as deadlines loom.

Student using laptop.

Principles of Collaborative Conflict Resolution

Units on campus may articulate guidelines and principles for many things.  However, that may not be the case for managing and resolving conflict situations, even though we know that conflict is a part of any organization.  Taking some time to consider a collaborative and principled response to challenging conflict situations can contribute to a healthy and inclusive climate for all, even under trying circumstances. 

Consider these principles as a starting point for collaborative conflict resolution:

People standing together.

Lessons Continually Learned, Part 2

Successful conflict resolution is often far more art than science.  When I talk about the work of an ombudsman, and the ways I try to approach conflicts, I am continually reminded of some approaches that can help me do my job better, and that may help anyone resolve conflict more productively. 

Man and woman looking at papers on wall.

Preparing for a Challenging Conversation

Conflict is often inextricably tied to challenging conversations.  Challenging, or crucial, conversations have been defined as those when opinions vary, the stakes are high, and emotions run strong.

Lessons Continually Learned, Part 1

Successful conflict resolution is often far more art than science.  When I talk about the work of an ombudsman, and the ways I try to approach conflicts, I am continually reminded of some approaches that can help me do my job better.  Below is part 1 of what I like to call some lessons that I am continually learning:

Students using laptops.

Student Fitness for Continued Enrollment — New Guidance

New guidance is now available to help academic units manage situations in which there is concern about whether a student with a mental health impairment is fit for continued enrollment or return to enrollment after an absence.  The guidance acknowledges the University's core values of nondiscrimination and inclusiveness, health and safety, the integrity of academic standards, and confidentiality and privacy.


Managing the Classroom: Roles, Rules and Expectations

At the University of Michigan, as at perhaps all institutions, individual instructors are given broad leeway to manage their classrooms in ways they deem appropriate.  Course syllabi and instructor statements provide an opportunity for instructors to establish clear rules and norms of each classroom.  And yet, despite best efforts and intentions, conflict can arise especially when instructor and student expectations clash. 

Informality, a Principle of Ombuds Work

Informality is a standard of ombuds practice as outlined by the International Ombudsman Association. What does this standard mean, and how might it be important to you as you explore options for resolving a conflict? 

The Process (and not just the content) of Dispute Resolution

"I want to thank you for all your efforts.  We didn't achieve the outcome we were hoping for, but it was not through any lack of effort or empathy on your part."

This is the kind of thing I sometimes hear from visitors to my office, and as the Ombudsman I believe we can learn some interesting things about conflict from this perspective.  Often we think about the content of a conflict: I want a better grade, or access to more financial aid, or a better working relationship with with my advisor.  Sometimes we get some or all of what we want, and sometimes we do not.