I sat down with Marcia Gee Riley and Zackary Hull to discuss the purpose of the Ombuds Office, the highs and lows of their roles, and how graduate students can utilize the office to discuss concerns, learn about resources, or discover new methods for dealing with personal or professional conflicts.
What does a university ombudsperson do?
MGR: We are a resource for undergrads, grads and postdocs facing difficult situations. We help visitors talk through their stories, understand what types of resolutions or outcomes are available to them, and offer as many options to pursue those resolutions as possible.
That’s our main objective — to be a confidential, neutral, and informal space for our visitors to be able to talk through and understand what options are available to them. This includes other resources, coaching, and clarification around policies and procedures (as you know, there are many on our campus), and avenues to others spaces, because we don’t profess to be the be-all and end-all place, either.
On the flip side, we do collect data and demographics in a non-identifiable way so that university leaders can see what types of issues people are bringing to our office. We do want to be able to inform senior leaders and decision makers about how they can create positive change for students and other visitors.
ZH: That’s a very thorough explanation of what our office does. In short, it’s a place for students to feel heard, regardless of the issues they’re facing. Marcia mentioned “difficult situations.” Often, that’s why people come to our office, but difficult is relative.
It doesn’t have to rise to a level of senior leadership on this campus. It can be something difficult they’re going through with a peer on campus. There’s no one category of issue that we listen to. We’re here to listen to whatever issue students bring to us.
MGR: Zac brought up a good point too, because we’re sometimes a place where something doesn’t reach the threshold of being a formal complaint or policy violation, but the person is still seeking some sort of resolution or avenue for action or healing. We can be passive or active in terms of our engagement. It’s really up to the visitor.
How do your roles differ?
ZH: Simply, they differ in terms of experience and inexperience. Marcia is the director of the office, has been working as an Ombudsperson for the past 11-12 years, and has been a UC Berkeley employee for more than 30 years. So Marcia is the experienced professional here. I was hired in April, so I’m new to this office and new to this kind of work.
MGR: And already doing an awesome job. That’s on the record.
Zac is the first point of contact for our office. As you noticed when you walked in the door, we’re not exactly a drop-in sort of space. People are referred to us by peers, staff, faculty — or they find us through our website. We don’t use email; we don’t do drop-in visits; so visitors need to call in to do an initial inquiry and make an appointment, if desired.
Zac does a great job of clarifying for people what it is that we actually do. We don’t really turn people away, ever, for the most part, but he does prepare people to help them understand what we do, so that their expectations are clear.
When people call for appointments, they fill out a non-identifiable intake form. We collect this non-identifiable data in order to paint a picture of the challenges that students are facing on this campus, and to learn about how we can make a difference.
What are the highlights of your job and what are the challenges?
ZH: The highlights for me are when visitors appreciate that they were able to say so much and not be interrupted, stopped or questioned. I have so many people say, “Thanks for listening. I just had to get that off my chest.” That’s a service where I don’t do anything other than just listen. That’s not entirely what Ombuds professionals do, but that’s a big part of it.
Another highlight is seeing our efforts ultimately help our visitors.
The challenges are feeling heartbroken for students that are experiencing hardships or difficulties. On top of that, since we are an impartial office and not an advocacy office, we can’t and don’t argue for specific outcomes, even if the outcome seems like the moral or just thing. That’s not our role. Our role is to be impartial and neutral when dealing with individual cases.
MGR: The gratifying moments are at the end of the appointment when someone says, “I’m so glad that you’re here. I had no idea what an Ombuds was. I wish more students actually knew that this existed because it’s so helpful.” Empowering people to resolve their own issues feels really good.
One of the other great things about the job is that every case is different and I’m never bored. I still learn something about this campus every day because often cases involve investigating some new facet of a program, resource, or policy.
On the flip side, sometimes we never know what happens. We’re not a place of record or report. We don’t keep any files. People are not obligated to tell us what happens in terms of whether they resolve their matter or whether they do anything.
Is there anything else you’d like graduate students to know about the Ombuds Office?
ZH: I want to make it clear that we’re a confidential resource. Any visitor that comes to the Ombuds Office or contacts the office — there’s no data that links back to that person. The only way anyone would know that a visitor contacted our office is if the visitors themselves gave permission for us to share it.
MGR: We’re one of the very few staff on campus who are not mandated reporters or responsible employees in cases of sexual assault or harassment.
ZH: The exception to the confidentiality rule is if we believe someone is in imminent danger of seriously harming themselves or others. That’s a very high threshold to meet, so students should feel confident that when they contact our office, they are not inadvertently contacting anybody else.
And while we want visitors to contact our office, we are not a crisis office. Students should not contact us if they are looking for immediate help or response — Path to Care, UCPD, or University Health Services are sometimes a better resource for an immediate need.
MGR: We’re a great resource for graduate students who want to rehearse having difficult conversations. When it comes to our graduate student visitors, they’re often in situations where they’re facing a difficult conversation — whether that be with a faculty advisor or a committee member or peer — their relationships are more long-term and personal than undergraduate students. We can help them talk through ways to mend or maintain relationships — that’s where we see more use of our office by graduate students.
Sometimes students are facing dismissal or probation that leads to dismissal, or severe mental health issues that are impacting their ability to perform or succeed in the moment. We try to be a place of options, to give perspective, and to temper it with, “You’re a human being. It’s a stressful environment. Taking a break right now doesn’t mean that it’s forever or that you can’t take a different path or approach to the same end goal.”
Visitors can utilize our office at any point in their issue. We will see people anywhere along the way, even if it’s not serious.
To read more about the UC Berkeley Ombuds Office, or to make an appointment, visit sa.berkeley.edu/ombuds.