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Office of the Ombuds Expands: Navigating Conflict Resolution Through a Diverse Cultural Lens

September 30, 2021

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In the September 17 issue of Hi5, we reported that the Office of the Ombuds had welcomed two new staff members. For today’s issue, we sat down with Elizabeth Stone, University Ombuds, and Norma Morán, Associate Ombuds, who together took us through the history of the office, the evolution of its role and function, and its expansion.

Conflict can, and will, arise during life and work. Conflict can stem from all types of issues — for example, interpersonal conflict or a communication breakdown. This is where the field of ombuds is crucial; given the multilayered complexity and demands of higher education, the idea is that an ombuds office can assist in conflict resolution, group work, mediation, restorative practices, and systemic changes. 

Originating from the concept of an “ombudsman” in the 18th century– the Scandinavian ideal referring to an individual who serves as a third agent of the people– the ombuds profession has seen unprecedented growth, and not just in higher education. Corporations, healthcare entities, and K-12 programs are seeing merit in and launching their own ombuds programs, with the goal of reducing and resolving conflict among their employees, constituents, and consumers. Ombuds is the term most commonly used nowadays though you will still see Ombudsperson or Ombudsman. The International Ombuds Association has recently changed from Ombudsman to Ombuds. 

The four principles of ombuds are confidentiality, impartiality, informality, and independence. There are several different types of ombuds roles, working in various environments such as legislative and healthcare fields. In the circumstances of Gallaudet University and other academic establishments, the Office of Ombuds takes on an organizational ombuds role, as opposed to advocacy or classical ombuds roles. 

When the Office of the Ombuds at Gallaudet University was founded in 2008, over 250 colleges and universities had established Ombuds programs. Numbers have continued to increase since then, including K-12 programs as well. Recently, the International Ombuds Association hit its milestone of having 1,000 members.

According to Stone, “The road to the establishment of the Office of Ombuds started in 2006 when students of color protested the University’s flawed process which eliminated Dr. Glenn B. Anderson, ’68 & H-’14, per paper screening without a chance for an interview. When Dr. Robert R. Davila, ’53 & H-’96, became the university’s ninth president in 2007, he saw an immediate need for an ombuds office.”

President Davila asked Edgar B. Palmer, ’77, to explore and collect information on establishing an ombuds office. Palmer was the first known deaf person to attend an International Ombuds Association conference. He also chaired the search committee which led to the hiring of Suzanne Singleton Rosen, E-’88, as Gallaudet’s first Ombuds. Rosen Singleton served until 2012, and was followed by Dr. Michael L. Moore, ’68, who served as Interim ombuds for one year while a national search was conducted. The position of ombuds was vacant for one year after Dr. Moore retired. In January 2015, Stone became the university’s third Ombuds.

Through many conversations, long waits, and two searches, the one-person Office of the Ombuds finally grew to three people in Fall 2021. According to Stone, it took 13 years of lobbying by three different Ombuds to make this possible for a more diverse office.

As reported in the September 17 issue of Hi5, the Office of the Ombuds recently welcomed two new staff members: Norma Morán, Associate Ombuds, and SooHyun Tak, ’90, ’93, & G-’95, Ombuds Facilitator. According to Stone, this 150 percent increase in staffing is quite a remarkable achievement. For context, the University of California at Davis, which serves over 35,000 students, has a team of five Ombuds. Stone says that “…these additional resources, without a doubt, will allow for the Office of the Ombuds with various conflict resolution competencies to be able to meet its mission of serving the Gallaudet community more broadly.”

Stone explained that the expansion of her ombuds team also means they have the ability to direct some of their energy into big-picture, long-term strategies. Through their interactions with the campus community, the Office of the Ombuds has a unique perspective into the issues that erode healthy atmospheres on campus. Their work leads them into situations where inequitable treatment, power struggles, need for feedback, group dynamics, communication breakdown, and other factors come into play. By navigating these situations, Stone and her team will be able to develop data and insights on the major issues that the university needs to address as a whole. The expansion of the team will help with this initiative, providing us the oversight and expertise needed to make a gainful impact.

Morán expressed that one of the office’s goals is to also foster more deaf and hard of hearing involvement in the ombuds community, given its strong culture of networking and professional development. Stone discussed how Gallaudet University is in a unique position in the ombuds field with our cultural context and the wide spectrum of identities that coexist in our community. In every interaction, the ombuds team must consider all perspectives and cultural lens. By having more deaf and hard of hearing Ombuds with intersectional identities in the field, their impact would foster greater cross-cultural connections as well as share the tools and knowledge other Ombuds can use in their various establishments, especially when they find themselves interacting with deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing, as well as disabled, people in their work. This would also encourage other ombuds offices to consider the importance of being inclusive and complying with providing accommodations. 

Concludes Stone, “The Office of the Ombuds is deeply grateful to Gallaudet University for supporting them with new, additional resources in order for us to meet our mission in serving Gallaudet students, staff, faculty, alumni, and families with confidential conflict management resources. Every visit matters, and the Office of the Ombuds is committed to providing every visitor the opportunity for a fair and equitable process.” 

Read more about each of the new Office of the Ombuds staff in our previous announcement.

Ms. Morán, as the Associate Ombuds, will be responsible for undergraduate and graduate student visits, conflict resolution and competence training, and data visualization, management, and reporting. We are excited to have her on board to help us meet growing demand for these services, and especially for supporting our student community. 

Ms. Tak, as the part-time Ombuds Facilitator, will be responsible for facilitating circles which includes pre-, during and post-sessions. Depending on the visitor’s preference, Ms. Tak will co-facilitate with the Ombuds, by herself, or with another person. 

Prior to joining the Office of the Ombuds, Norma Morán spent the last five years raising her children while remaining heavily involved in the Deaf community on the local, state, and national level. Currently, she is an appointed member of the Maryland Advisory Council of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and a board member of the Maryland/Washington DC Chapter of Hands and Voices, a national advocacy organization for parents with deaf and hard of hearing children. She recently served on her undergraduate alma mater’s advisory board as well. During this time, Norma obtained certificates in diversity, equity, and inclusion from Northwestern University and Cornell University. She has given numerous presentations to a wide variety of organizations and institutions; her presentations ranged from cultural experiences to DEI issues to educational and social advocacy for families with deaf and hard of hearing children. She obtained a bachelor’s degree from Rochester Institute of Technology and a master’s degree from American University. 

From 2009 to 2016, Norma was at Gallaudet University in the Office of Academic Quality (now known as the Office of Student Success and Academic Quality) as a Data Analyst, then as Coordinator of Assessment, Planning, and Accreditation where she worked with multiple campus stakeholders and provided training and workshops. She also taught several 200-level GSR courses, provided training for cross-cultural and international internships, and served as a co-advisor to the Latino Student Union. 

Originally from South Korea, SooHyun Tak immigrated to the United States at age 4 with her family for better life and deaf education opportunities. Upon graduating from Gallaudet University with a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, she worked for 20+ years in the fields of advocacy and counseling services for deaf, hard of hearing, and deafblind individuals. She has worked in a variety of settings, ranging from a youth residential treatment center to community mental health and advocacy agencies. SooHyun returned to Gallaudet University in 2013, bringing her rich fieldwork experience to the Department of Counseling where she works as a Clinical Mental Health Counseling faculty member, preparing students to be license-eligible multiculturally competent counselors.

In addition to teaching, SooHyun is an independent consultant, facilitator, and trainer on both the local and national levels. She centers her work around topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion at the workplace.

30 September 2021

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