Steve Watter is back, and better than ever. A 31-year veteran in the Dean’s Office in the area of student life, serving as—among other positions—Title IX Coordinator, Watter has returned to take the lead role in the new Ombuds Office. The creation of the Office was announced in an email to students from President Kim Benston.
What exactly will the Ombuds do? When asked to sum up his role in a sentence, Watter said that he hopes to be a “safe, confidential resource for the entire Haverford community.” Watter characterized mediation through the Ombuds as “an alternative, not a substitute” for established methods of dispute resolution.
According to the new website for the Ombuds, the office will function through private in-person appointments with Watter, which can easily be arranged by any member of the Haverford community through Google Calendar. At meetings, the Ombuds will listen to the community member’s issue, then help them decide what course of action they wish to take to resolve the issue.
“It occupies this informal space between doing nothing—feeling you’ve got an issue or concern, but you don’t know how to say it, who to say it to, where to go, concerned about the repercussions or how the person will respond—and doing something formal. It’s a space to discuss possibilities,” described Watter.
In the fall of 2018, President Kim Benston reached out to Watter about coming back to Haverford to become the Ombuds. Watter agreed because he’s deeply familiar with Haverford’s sometimes confusing bureaucratic structure, though he joked that Benston must have gone from “A to W on the alphabet before someone agreed” to fill the new position.
According to Watter, ombuds have become increasingly common in educational institutions around the country. Even many small liberal arts colleges now have the position, including Watter’s own alma mater, Oberlin—though currently neither Swarthmore nor Bryn Mawr. However, Watter describes Haverford’s Ombuds Office as “simple and spare” compared to those at larger universities, which usually have more staff and employ formal mediation processes.
Asked about the relationship between the Ombuds and the Honor Code, Watter pointed out that he worked closely with Honor Council during his time as a dean and expected to continue in that role as Ombuds. “One of the responsibilities of the Ombuds,” he said, “is to refer individuals to the best resource. And for students, if something needs to get done, [Honor Council] is the place to get it done.”
However, Watter noted that in his experience, students were sometimes reluctant to bring problems to Honor Council. They would express a desire to avoid making things into a “big deal”.
To help allay community members’ concerns over dispute resolution, Water expects to use some of the same strategies that he used as Dean. In the context of an Honor Code violation, Watter gave this example: “Maybe you and I would sit together, and we would roleplay confrontation.”
The Ombuds Office will operate under a principle of confidentiality, and will not permanently keep records or disclose the details of its meetings. The only exceptions to this principle are cases of “imminent risk of serious harm to the individual or others in the community” or “suspected abuse of a minor”, as well as any court orders, according to the office’s website. Notably, the Ombuds will not be a mandated reporter under Title IX.
Water said that in the past, there had been calls to implement an Ombuds Office. Especially at a small school like Haverford, he said, people often hesitated to go to their supervisors. “The concern was that it wouldn’t be kept private, or that it would become too formal too quickly, or that things would spin out of control, or that there would be some pushback or judgement made for coming forward,” described Watter.
“The College wanted to be able to try to address those more general concerns,” explained Watter. There was “a need for this informal space, to give voice to one’s concerns.” He hopes that the Ombuds Office will provide that informal space.
The Ombuds Office will run for a one-year pilot through May 2020, at which point soon-to-be President Wendy Raymond will decide, in consultation with the community, whether to make it a permanent position.