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Originally published: 2012-12-03 10:50:25
Last modified: 2012-12-03 10:50:25

ASU appoints ombudsman to help resolve conflicts

by Anna Oakes

Appalachian State University recently announced that the campus has established a new Office of the Ombud to hear concerns and help resolve conflicts in a neutral and confidential environment.

"The Office of the Ombud will provide all members of the Appalachian community with a neutral, impartial and confidential environment to discuss individual concerns of faculty, staff and students," ASU Provost Lori Gonzalez said in a Nov. 20 email to faculty and staff.

An ombudsman is a representative assigned by a large organization or government to investigate complaints and suggest solutions. Ombudsmen are employed in universities, corporations, municipalities and institutions such as hospitals.

Jim Barnes, a professor in the Department of Government and Justice Studies, has been appointed as interim university ombudsman. The office will officially open during the spring 2013 semester, the email stated.

"The ombud will assist, when needed, in clarifying university issues and policies," said Gonzalez. "He will also serve as a neutral party in resolving disputes, as well as providing referrals to other ASU offices and resources for conflict resolution."

Gonzalez said the ombudsman will work closely with the offices of Student Development; Human Resources; Equity, Diversity and Compliance; and Academic Affairs to develop processes for dealing with concerns of campus members.

The position will report to the provost, she said, "but typically the ombud makes annual reports to entities on campus like the Faculty Senate, Staff Senate and Cabinet or top leadership team."

Gonzalez, who became ASU's provost in 2011, said no one she has asked recalls that ASU has had an ombudsman in the past.

A decade ago, a Dec. 3, 2001, resolution approved by the Faculty Senate recommended the creation of a university ombudsman, emphasizing that "anonymity (of the grievant) will be maintained to the greatest extent possible."

"Having an ombud office is a best practice in higher education. Many campuses have this position,"  Gonzalez said. "I would say the events on campus last year reinforced the need for such a position." 

At least two incidents involving complaints landed ASU in the news during the 2011-12 academic year.

Two students said they were sexually assaulted by ASU football players, and one later filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education stating ASU did not properly respond to her complaint. And when a professor was placed on administrative leave after students complained about her comments and a film in her class, ASU faculty said administrators violated due process.

The creation of an ombudsman's office is one of a number of moves the university has made to modify its procedures for handling concerns and complaints during the past year.

In August, ASU Chancellor Ken Peacock approved a 29-page addendum to the Code of Student Conduct addressing sexual misconduct. Under the code changes, investigators are assigned to all complaints of sexual misconduct, and investigations must be concluded no later than 30 days following the receipt of a complaint.

Last month, ASU announced it had contracted with EthicsPoint, a reporting hotline that accepts anonymous complaints about policy or legal violations.