Ombudsman office marks 35 years of service

A university can be a daunting place, especially when you’ve got a problem and don’t know where to turn. That was one reason the WSU Office of the University Ombudsman was created in 1971, and it’s one reason the office is still thriving 35 years later.

“People come in and say, ‘I don’t know why I’m talking to you, but here’s the problem,’” said Ken Struckmeyer, faculty ombudsman for the past eight years.

Struckmeyer, a professor of landscape architecture who joined WSU the same year the ombudsman program was started, said his knowledge of WSU and how things work is a huge asset, especially when working with other faculty members. Similarly, he said, his colleague, Judy Krueger, brings her experience as an AP staff member to the job. Krueger worked at the Center for Human Rights before joining the ombudsman’s office last summer.

Both Krueger and Struckmeyer work half time at the ombudsman’s office, along with a full-time assistant ombudsman, Debbie Waite. Their services are available to all faculty, staff and students at all WSU campuses and extension sites and are guided by four principles: neutrality, confidentiality, informality and independence.

Not an advocate
The ombudsman is not an advocate, Krueger said, but an impartial listener who attempts to help people clarify issues and explore options. If someone needs help figuring out whom to talk to, the ombudsman can provide a referral. Whenever possible, Krueger said, she encourages people to deal with the issue directly by talking with the other person or people involved. But, she said, there are times when it might be appropriate for her to mediate a discussion.

All dealings with a university ombudsman are completely confidential, Krueger said, and she must have explicit permission from the student, staff or faculty member before she can speak with anyone else to attempt to resolve the issue. The ombudsman’s office does not keep records and is not an office of notice for the university. That means, for instance, that describing a situation to an ombudsman is not the same as bringing it to the attention of university officials.

Listen and suggest
Struckmeyer, who is starting his fifth two-year appointment as an ombudsman, said listening first, and then offering suggestions — but not opinions — is key to the job.

“When people come in, you always think, ‘Oh my God, how could that happen?’ And then you hear the other side,” he said, and laughed. “And sometimes there’s a third side.”
In any case, the personal opinion of the ombudsmen is irrelevant, he said, because they are not decision-makers and they have no powers of enforcement. The ombudsman office cannot be party to any formal grievance procedure, complaint, appeal process or legal proceeding. Nor does it investigate cases of sexual harassment or discrimination. These cases are handled by the Center for Human Rights.

“What we are trying to do is be an advocate for fairness,” he said. “…As we would see it.”

The ombudsman office is in Wilson Hall 2, and is open 8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. For more information call 335-1195, or visit www.wsu.edu/~ombuds.

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