History of the Ombuds Office

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The term 'ombudsman' has origins in Sweden and varying types of Ombudsman with different roles, functional responsiblities, and standards of practice.  At Columbia, we are organizational ombuds who are independent, informal, impartial and confidential.  We provide a confidential resource for our students, faculty, staff and alumni to discuss their workplace or academic issues and/or concerns.

The Columbia University Ombuds Office was established in 1991 on the recommendation of the President's Committee for the Promotion of Mutual Understanding and Civility.  The Ombuds Office takes concerns about discrimination and harassment very seriously and can offer options for informal resolutions and identify University resources for formal review of concerns.  However, the Ombuds Office was established to address situations that involve insensitivity, unfairness or miscommunication that may not necessarily constitute harassment or discrimination.

Dr. Wagner served as the first University Ombuds Officer and held this position for 22 years, until her retirement in October 2013.  Marsha was well-known as a leader within the Organizational Ombuds profession.  She served three terms on the Board of Directors of The Ombudsman Association (TOA) and one year on the Board of Directors of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA). Additionally, Marsha chaired the TOA Professional Development Committee and the IOA Committee on Ethics, Standards of Practice and Best Practices.  The IOA's Certified Organizational Ombudsman Practitioner (CO-OP), the only certification credential available for the ombuds profession, was established through Dr. Wagner's tireless efforts.  She served as the inaugural President of the IOA Board of Certification.

After Dr. Wagner's retirement, the office was vacant for five (5) months while a national search for her successor followed.  In March 2014, President Lee C. Bollinger announced Joan C. Waters as the next University Ombuds Officer.

The Columbia University Ombuds Office reopened in April 2014 after a brief suspension of operations.  Joan C. Waters reimagined and refreshed the office space at the Morningside office and with the ever increasing demand for services, expanded the office staff from one part-time administrative professional to add a full time Ombuds and a full time administrative manager.

The Ombuds Office rebranded itself and its materials, relocated its office on the CUIMC campus and expanded its operations to a more consistent presence on the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory campus and the Manhattanville campus.  The Columbia community has access to the Ombuds services on all of Columbia’s campuses.  In addition, the office website was refreshed and expanded in its scope and services.  A complete renewal of the website was conducted in 2020.

Within the academic Ombuds community, in 2014 Joan established, with another local Ombudsman, the NY Area Ombuds Group which meets quarterly at Ombuds office locations through-out NYC.  Both Joan Waters and Marilyn Molina are members of the International Ombudsman Association (IOA) and have both obtained CO-OP status within the IOA. Joan serves on the Accreditation Committee for obtaining the CO-OP designation for the IOA and is currently serving as the co-convenor of the California Caucus of College and University Ombuds (CCCUO) 47th annual Caucus.

With a fully professional staff and enhanced skills and training in coaching, facilitation, mediation and diversity, equity and inclusion, the Ombuds Office is available to assist its constituents navigate the complexities of University culture, interpersonal dynamics, workplace dynamics and administrative policies and procedures.