October 12 marks Ombuds Day, founded in 2018 by the American Bar Association Dispute Resolution Section and part of a month-long recognition of conflict resolution professions. Stony Brook University’s Ombuds Office is resuming in-person workshops for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic and is offering a number of events throughout the month of October in celebration of Ombuds Month.
Donna Buehler serves as the Stony Brook ombuds. She first joined the campus in 1998 as the director of the Stony Brook University Employee Assistance Program and later became the director of Organizational Wellness and Healthier U Initiatives before assuming her current role. Her expertise is in behavioral health, wellness and workplace issues.
The ombuds office was founded in 1966 when three faculty were appointed to serve as part-time ombuds. While some ombuds offices in higher education serve only students, Buehler sees students, faculty and staff in her role — in addition to parents, alumni and community members who seek information related to the campus and campus policies — and has seen nearly 2,000 visitors over the past seven years.
It is the only office at Stony Brook that is impartial, meaning the ombuds does not take sides, does not have a stake in the outcome, is not an advocate for the visitor, but does care about the visitor. The ombuds is an advocate of fairness and strives to help the visitor find fairness and a fair process or a resolution. There is no formal record keeping or fear of retaliation, and visitors may remain anonymous.
Buehler provides feedback to administration on overall trends in student or employee concerns, and offers recommendations for resolutions. “It’s a safe space to come to with any kind of concern or if you need information. It could be a big or small issue. There’s no question or issue that I can’t try to help or find the right contact or direction,” Buehler said.
Issues range from bullying, harassment and favoritism to student grade disputes and roommate conflicts. While the office is a non-record keeping office, Buehler estimates that half of the cases or more are resolved.
Buehler sees herself as a sounding board to listen and to help visitors organize their thoughts and formulate a plan of action by developing a strategy to address the issue. She encourages visitors to speak to her before an issue becomes a bigger problem, as more options may be available before a problem escalates.
Most commonly, issues stem from a power differential between supervisor and employee or professor and student and the type of issues could be everything from communication or lack of supervisory effectiveness or respect. It was these concerns that led to the development of the most popular workshops focused on effective and respectful communication (‘Communicating Across Generations’ and ‘Communication Toolkit: I Hear You’ are offered in October).
Buehler holds appointments in-person in her offices on West Campus and in the hospital, and also offers appointments via telephone or Zoom. Quick Tips on topics such as communication and conflict resolution are available on the office website.
Of her work, Buehler noted, “’I am most proud of being a safe, confidential, neutral and off the record place where people can come, be themselves and share their story while getting support and informal assistance.”