New university ombudsperson talks about her role in resolving conflicts

Brenda Berlin is Stanford University’s ombudsperson.  (Image credit: L.A.

Brenda Berlin is Stanford University’s ombudsperson. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

As Stanford ombudsperson, Brenda Berlin is an independent, neutral and confidential resource for students, post-docs, faculty and staff who are navigating conflicts or other issues.

Since arriving at Stanford in September as the university’s new ombudsperson, Brenda Berlin is on a mission to tell members of the campus community what she does.

The role of ombudsperson is not well understood, Berlin admits, noting the challenge of educating the university community about the neutral nature of the office and the services offered for addressing conflict.

Her background has prepared her well for the job. She comes to Stanford from Duke University, where she served on the clinical law faculty, specializing in education and disability law. A graduate of Stanford Law School, Berlin also has held positions with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Here she talks about the ombudsperson role on campus and the opportunities it offers to help all members of the Stanford community deal with disputes.

What does the university ombudsperson do?

I provide a safe space for individuals or groups to talk in confidence about any campus issue, problem or dispute. I listen and help develop options for addressing concerns. This might mean providing feedback and coaching on ways they might solve the issue themselves, providing information on relevant policies and procedures or, in some instances, becoming involved by gathering information or providing "shuttle diplomacy" or "mediation" services to people locked in a dispute.

My services are off the record, so I don’t accept formal complaints or put Stanford "on notice" of a concern. But I can let someone know how to file a formal complaint and can serve as a confidential channel to let university leadership know of a concern.

What are the biggest challenges of the job?

A really big challenge is the campus community’s lack of familiarity with university ombuds’ offices. In fact, when I was a law student at Stanford, I had no idea what an ombuds was or that Stanford had one. So first and foremost, educating the community about my office is important.

Second is clarifying that I am neutral, independent, informal and confidential , and that I am not an advocate for any Stanford office or person. Rather, I exist for all members of the university equally, with the goal of helping all parties to a conflict to resolve the issue. Sometimes, when someone comes to me with a concern, I can help them navigate that concern based on my expertise or my knowledge of Stanford policies and practices. But sometimes I need more information and will reach out to get that information.

I think that sometimes when I reach out, people on the receiving end of my call may not understand that I’m not advocating for the person for whom I am making the call, nor am I second-guessing an action that they may have taken. Rather I am reaching out for information so I can help clarify the situation or to see if I can help the parties resolve the matter. I don’t have a stake in the outcome of any dispute that comes to my office. If I am an advocate, it’s for understanding, fair process and amicable resolution - nothing else.

What kind of problems have you addressed?

The kind of issues the ombudsperson can help with - and the kind of issues I have seen - include seeking feedback on difficult communication issues with advisers, colleagues and supervisors or between groups and students; interpreting or applying university policies, procedures and practices; issues of fairness or possible harassment or discrimination in the workplace or classroom; academic issues, including grading, authorship or issues related to graduating from a Stanford program; and concerns about possible misconduct.

What is the origin of the ombudsperson role, especially in resolving balance-of-power issues among people in conflict?

Originally, the ombuds role was created to investigate and prosecute allegations of wrongdoing by governmental officials. The university ombuds evolved from this classic role. We don’t have authority to mandate a university policy change or require that someone change a management or administrative decision. That’s because we operate in a purely informal and confidential way.

However, these tenets of informality and confidentiality have many benefits and address, in other ways, the power-imbalance issue. First, confidentiality allows someone to air issues without concern about possible retaliation. Second, I can provide guidance on how to report a potential legal or policy violation and, if someone wishes, can help them do so anonymously. Third, since I have broad powers of inquiry, I can help find answers that someone has had difficulty finding themselves. Finally, on a meta level, I can suggest to university leadership system-level changes based on information brought to me in an individual case, while still preserving confidentiality.

What prompted you to leave Duke for this position?

The decision to leave Duke was a family decision. My spouse was recruited to Stanford. It was made easier by the fact that I loved my Stanford experience. Although I wasn’t looking to leave Duke and the work I was doing, I was really excited when I saw the posting for my current position because it drew on many of the aspects of my professional work as an attorney and teacher that I found most rewarding. I wasn’t wrong. I am really enjoying my work as an ombuds.

What do you want members of the Stanford community to know about the Office of the Ombuds?

I want everyone to understand that I am here to help with any issue that is interfering with your Stanford experience - big or small. If it is important to you, then it is important to me.

People can call me as a first step, as a last resort or anywhere in between. I may not be able to change your circumstances, but I can listen to your concerns and be a "thought partner" as you think through ways to address the issue. In some instances, I can also intervene either to get more information or to help you resolve a conflict you are having with someone else at Stanford.

And finally, if one day you pick up the phone and I’m on the other end of the line, I want you to know that I am not calling to challenge you or a decision you may have made. I’m just trying to better understand a situation or solve a conflict, if I can. If I do my job well, then I hope that I can be of service to everyone at Stanford, whether they make an appointment with me or just pick up the phone when I call.