Faculty voice:

Shannon Lynn Burton: Ombuds Day sheds light on key role

Oct. 10, 2018

Shannon Lynn Burton became the university ombudsperson at MSU in July 2018 after serving previously as both the assistant university ombudsperson and later associate university ombudsperson.

October 11 notes the arrival of the inaugural “Ombuds Day” as designated by the American Bar Association. For many, this day may not have grand recognition or fanfare, as the term “ombuds,” “ombudsman” or “ombudsperson” may seem alien in its pronunciation and in its role.

Before I considered this as a career option, even I felt the position to be an unknown – and a bit scary too – given the position’s involvement and impact on organizational conflict. After all, for many, engaging conflict evokes the desire to freeze, flee or fight.

When I was finishing my Ph.D. in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education here at Michigan State University, I began looking for a new and unique way to not only impact student success, but also address the need for social justice in our society and in the MSU community.

That is when the part-time position of assistant ombudsperson opened. I jumped at the chance as I saw it as a unique space to foster student development and address systemic concerns and issues. Little did I know the real value of its role within the university and how it would impact my view of the world beyond MSU.

Fast forward six and a half years to today where I am now serving full-time as the University Ombudsperson. While still an “unknown” to individuals who have never interacted with the office, I have found it to be a vital space within the university to not only address student-related concerns, but a place to foster and build trust among community members, as well as examine our concepts of fairness and due process.

As a confidential, neutral, independent and informal resource, the Office of the University Ombudsperson is charged to help individuals navigate university policies, procedures and processes; reframe concerns so they can be better addressed; teach conflict resolution skills so that visitors may engage one another in a healthy way; and look for systemic trends and concerns to share with university leaders to improve practices and the climate of the institution.

Having a national recognition like Ombuds Day offers MSU an opportunity to highlight this undervalued resource. Born out of the civil rights era, the Office of the University Ombudsperson is the longest standing ombuds office at any college or university in the United States and the office continues to build on this legacy.

I am the sixth ombudsperson and with my appointment in July 2018, the office is expanding its services to include two full-time ombuds to improve our response to students, faculty and staff. While independent and neutral, our goal is to improve the visibility and recognition of the office in a way that helps MSU navigate conflict in a time of organizational change.

The office sees Ombuds Day as a national recognition of the unique services this office has historically provided in alternative dispute resolution and in our broader society. Personally, I see the day as a way to recognize the work that I value in student development and social justice.

Truth be told, conflict no longer “scares” me… I see it as an opportunity to take a step back, reflect, reframe and to open discourse, honesty and partnership in improving our organizations and in building better relationships with one another.

For more information about Shannon Lynn Burton's role as University Ombudsperson, go to WKAR's podcast with Burton.