Interview with the Ombudsman

With a new year ahead of us, it’s important that graduate students (and everyone else) know about the resources at Stony Brook University for handling issues and conflict. With that in mind, we interviewed the University ombuuds, Donna Buehler, to find out more about what she does, and how she can help improve both students and faculty experiences at SBU.

BY: Mikaela Dunkin

Who are you and what do you do?

I’m Donna Buehler and I work at Stony Brook University as the University Ombudsman, which is a Swedish term that is gender neutral, but call me “Donna.”  I serve students, faculty and staff and I refer to them as my visitors. The only population that I don’t serve is hospital patients and families, because we have a Patient Advocacy Program to help them.

I’m originally from Connecticut, but I went to grad school in NYC before working in Midtown for a few years while living in Brooklyn. I came to Stony Brook University in 1998 and have the pleasure of serving students, faculty and staff in three different careers.  My expertise is in behavioral health, wellness and workplace issues. I’ve always been interested in people and other cultures. I enjoy empowering others to learn and to resolve problems.

And, through most of my career, I’ve found myself working in university settings.  I enjoy the intellectual community and I love learning.  

What does an Ombudsman do?

The Ombudsman assists visitors (students – undergrad, grad – Master’s, Ph.D. candidates, medical students, postdocs, medical residents, faculty, staff) with their concerns, complaints and provides information and resources to navigate a very large and complex university and health care system.  The ombuds is guided by 4 standards of practice or principles:

  1. Confidentiality – see website for exceptions
  2. Impartiality or Neutrality
  3. Informality
  4. Independence

I listen to the visitor’s concern, help them explore options to resolve or address the concern, including referral to other offices or referral to appropriate university policies, etc.  It is up to the visitor to decide what they wish to do.

Services include individual and/or group, confidential consultation, informal mediation as appropriate, and educational workshops that can also be customized to a work group or student group. There is a wealth of information at one’s fingertips by going to www.stonybrook.edu/ombuds.  You’ll find a list of workshops and upcoming ones, a library of recommended books, and quick tips on a variety of subjects with articles and videos for additional information.

Why is having an Ombudsman important?

It is the only office at Stony Brook University that is impartial, meaning the ombuds does not take sides, does not have a stake in the outcome, but certainly does care about the visitor.  The ombuds is not an advocate for the visitor. However, the ombuds is an advocate of fairness and strives to help the visitor find fairness and a fair process or a resolution.  

What do you wish graduate students knew about going to see an Ombudsman?

The top three things graduate students should know about consulting with the Ombuds Office are:

  • It’s a safe place to go for any issue related to your work or study at Stony Brook, because everything is confidential (except where noted) with no formal record keeping or fear of retaliation.  And, if a visitor wishes to be anonymous, that’s okay too.
  • No problem is too big or too small and can be discussed in person or by phone.
  • There are plenty of resources and referral information available online or in person.

How can you help a student who has an issue, but is not prepared to take action?

There are many ways that I can be of assistance.  Above all else, I am a sounding board to listen to the student’s concern, help them organize their thoughts and formulate a plan of action.  If the student is hesitant on calling an office that could be helpful, we can call together and ask questions on speaker phone. If so desired, the student can be anonymous. Or, if the student wants to prepare for a difficult conversation with their PI, professor, Department Head or a colleague, we can discuss how to approach the individual and perhaps role play the scenario.

Two Women Sitting in Front of White Table

Is it important that students come to you even if they think the issue is small? If so, why is it important?

Whether the issue is big or small the ombuds is a sounding board where visitors can confidentially share their story, vent their concerns, and gain an independent and neutral perspective of the problem or issue.  We recognize that there are many sides of a story and sometimes it’s useful to have someone help us step back and look at the issue very carefully, gain another perspective and develop options and a strategy to address the problem.  Opportunities to solve problems are always easiest when the issue is identified early and when more options may be available.

Is there anything in particular that women graduate students should know? Particular issues you have come across that these women may be unaware is occuring?

I think what’s particularly helpful for women is to figure out a strategy of how to communicate and resolve conflict with others whose personal approach and style and even behavior may be very different than one’s own.  It’s about detaching from the issue at hand and from any emotions that might come up. Then, taking the time to step back and determine how best to get your message across to the other party. Frankly, learning about a strategy that works benefits all people regardless of one’s identified gender.

What issues can you not investigate, and where do you recommend students look for help instead?

Coming to the ombuds office is an “informal process.”  The ombuds does not get involved in any formal, investigative process, nor can the ombuds represent a visitor due to the impartial nature of the office.  The ombuds may keep notes with the visitor’s permission, but they are shredded once the case is closed. Only aggregate stats are kept so that the ombuds can let administration know of any trends or issues within the organization and can make recommendations to the leadership to improve the academic and work environment..  The ombuds is not an office of formal record keeping. Students are guided to other resources, institutional offices and policies for help resolve concerns and to file a formal complaint.

How can students reach out to you? Especially for students that are worried about retaliation?

There is no need to fear retaliation when consulting with me as your University Ombudsman.  It’s okay to call me or email me for an appointment at 632-9200. If I’m in a meeting, conducting a training, or at one of my other offices (locations are on East & West campuses), it’s important to leave a confidential message.  I am the only one with access to the voicemail messages. It’s important to let me know your availability and a phone number, if possible, to contact you. As I respect everyone’s confidentiality, please do not leave any personal information in an email.  It should be noted that a visitor can remain anonymous if they wish.  Walk-ins are welcome, but sometimes I may be in meetings or at other locations.

The Ombuds Office is located on the first floor of the Psychology B Building, Room 137

Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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