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App State Creates Ombuds Office To Resolve Professor-Student Conflicts

Big companies, government offices, and media outlets like NPR often have ombudsmen – they’re trained to handle complaints and to try to resolve disputes. And universities are no exception: NC State, UNC Chapel Hill, and Duke all have them. The latest UNC system school to create an ombudsman position is Appalachian State University in Boone. The school has appointed a long-time professor to set up the office, Jim Barnes. He’s been on the job since January 1. He says complaints last year about a professor factored into creating his position, but the idea had been discussed for a while.  Barnes talks to Morning Editon host Duncan McFadyen about getting the office off the ground.

MCFADYEN: Tell us how things are coming together in setting up the office and what you’re looking to do over the next few months.

BARNES: First of all, I’m looking for an office. The idea is to be a non-conspicuous place. For example, you wouldn’t want an ombudsman in an administrative office or an administrative building. The idea is to try to keep it as neutral and as confidential as possible.

MCFADYEN: What’s been the response from your faculty colleagues and from students you’ve run into, just anecdotally?

BARNES: I’ve had some say that it’s a waste of time; that we already have established methods or routes – that typically comes from those in the structure. The faculty may or may not use something like this. The reaction has been kind of mixed. But, I guess the reaction is generally favorable.

MCFADYEN: Are there any concerns about this being a threat to academic freedom or the tenuring process?

BARNES: Absolutely none. In my mind at least, I don’t see a connection.

MCFADYEN: Because it’s completely anonymous?

BARNES: It’s completely anonymous. The only time I could be compelled to release information would be if there were some form of judicial process involved.

MCFADYEN: OK, can you talk us through what you think the framework of filing and resolving a complaint will be?

BARNES: The idea is that you have a confidential spot where you can go, and there’s no record. The only records that I would keep would be maybe a person’s name and that they visited. The idea is then to use my talents and my knowledge of the institution and the people that are in these various offices to try to get this person’s problem resolved. So, in that sense it’s a guiding process, a neutral, confidential relationship with the client to try to resolve whatever it is they bring to me.

MCFADYEN: Now you mention that faculty are already comfortable going to the administration to deal with…

BARNES: That’s a more traditional route. If I have a problem, or if a student has a problem with me, then they would go to the department chair.

MCFADYEN: But you mention students, do you think they’re more likely to use this office.

BARNES: I think so, yes. Because there is no traditional pathway for students in the same way that a faculty member would go talk to the department chair, or the dean, or the provost about a particular problem of some kind. Now the student says, I can go talk to the ombudsman. No one will know what I talk to him about; it’s confidential; there’s no repercussions, etc.

MCFADYEN: Do you have any expectation of how many complaints, or clients as you call them, you may have to deal with in a given semester?

BARNES: I’ll be able to answer that in about two months, I think, a little better. But my guess is, from what I get from my conversations with friends in different offices around campus, that I’ll probably have a pretty full load. I’ve already gotten phone calls from people, and I’ve had to tell them that I’m not open yet. You know, the store ain’t open. But, I’ve tried to deal with them. I haven’t just put them off.