This past spring, Elizabeth “Liz” Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office, had the pleasure of interviewing Shereen Bingham, Professor Emeritus and former Ombuds at the University of Nebraska Omaha, about the Journal of the International Ombuds Association (JIOA) Special Issue on Sexual Harassment and Discrimination. Shereen served as Guest Editor of the JIOA Special Issue.

JIOA’s Editor, Shannon Lynn Burton, states, “Twelve stories highlight the multiple ways ombuds engage with sexual harassment and discrimination cases. These stories bear witness to the experiences of both ombuds and visitors as they engage in the difficult conversations that may lead towards healing.” “Reading the article and stories will help university constituents understand the ombuds role and the nature of ombuds work in a way that has rarely been available. It will provide readers with a vivid understanding of some of the important ways ombuds help people with sexual harassment concerns,” explains Shereen Bingham.

Liz: Shereen, tell us a little about yourself, including one fun fact.

Shereen: Growing up in California near the ocean, mountains, and forests instilled in me a love of nature and outdoor activities. I also learned to value education, as my parents had not gone to college and were determined that my siblings and I would go. My parents fought a lot, though, and we witnessed their destructive conflicts. This motivated me as a college student to study communication in personal and workplace relationships.

In my twenties I moved to the Midwest to get a Ph.D. in communication. Eventually I landed in Omaha, Nebraska where I built a career as a university professor and married an environmental engineer. I taught courses such as gender and communication and interpersonal conflict, did research on sexual harassment and related topics, and became a conflict mediator and a facilitator of dialogue on issues of race and racism. Eventually I discovered my calling as an ombuds and served the university for seven years in that role.  

My husband and I often go camping and enjoy outdoor adventures in the US and other parts of the world. We love activities like hiking, backpacking, bicycling, kayaking, rock climbing, skiing, and snowshoeing. Having recently retired, we plan to move to the northwest US, where we feel at home with the mountains, rivers, and wildlife. I continue to work part-time as an online family mediator for divorcing parents who need to develop a plan for parenting their children. Some of my other pastimes include creative writing, reading, watching movies, baking, exercising, and playing with our cats.  

Fun Fact:  I’ve climbed to the summit of Devil’s Tower.  

Liz: What inspired you to edit and publish  Ombuds Work on Sexual Harassment Cases: The Power of Our Stories and Tales from the Front Line of Ombuds Work: Handling Sexual Harassment Cases?

Shereen: As a researcher, I have long been interested in how individuals and organizations can effectively prevent and respond to sexual harassment.  In my first years as an ombuds, this interest drew me to attend several presentations and discussions focusing on the topic. The sessions provided helpful information about changes in sexual harassment laws, strategies for informing and persuading organizations that ombuds are a valuable resource in these cases, and the importance of following the ombuds professional standards of practice.  The sessions I attended did not, however, offer detailed descriptions of how ombuds work with visitors in sexual harassment situations. As a communication scholar I had learned that detailed stories can have educational value and be powerfully persuasive, and this realization inspired me to act. I wanted to publish a forum in which experienced ombuds would share true stories about their work in a range of sexual harassment situations. We titled the manuscript, “Tales from the Front Line of Ombuds Work: Handling Sexual Harassment Cases.” I wrote the article, “Ombuds Work on Sexual Harassment Cases: The Power of Our Stories” to introduce the collection of stories and provide a context for them.

Liz: How many stories did you curate for this article?

Shereen: Authors submitted 12 stories to me, and we ultimately published all of them. Editing this project was a multi-stage process involving a good deal of communication with the authors and the journal’s editorial staff over time. Each time I received a submission, I sent it as an anonymous story to the production editor, who sent it out to two reviewers. Reviewers used rating scales to evaluate the story and offered edits and written feedback. I then sent the reviews to the story’s author along with comments and suggestions of my own. The author and I emailed the revised drafts and comments back and forth until the story was ready for publication. I also asked an associate editor of the journal to look over the story with fresh eyes and offer additional edits if needed. Since the authors were all anonymous, I decided to assemble their 12 stories in a single article.

Liz: In your own words, what are the top three things Ombuds do to address sexual harassment?

Shereen:

  • Ombuds strive to provide people with a safe, confidential place to speak openly and feel heard without judgment. People who seek help from an ombuds often say they would not have disclosed their experience to anyone at the university if the confidential, informal, impartial ombuds were not available as a resource. The ombuds can assist anyone who seeks help, including victims and survivors of sexual harassment, people who have been accused of it, bystanders who have observed it, and supervisors and others who are responsible for protecting subordinates from it.  
  • Ombuds also serve the important function of creating a space where people can make their own informed decisions about how they want to address sexual harassment concerns. Ombuds do this by answering questions and providing information, gathering the perspectives of other parties, identifying the full range of options for dealing with sexual harassment, and helping people connect with other offices and resources. In this context, a person seeking help with a sexual harassment situation maintains self-determination and dignity. They can make considered decisions about moving forward, whether that means formally reporting what happened to the appropriate university office or another option.  
  • Ombuds identify ways to help people safely address sexual harassment concerns even when they are unwilling to personally notify the university about the problem.  For example, the ombuds may offer coaching regarding communication with the harasser or other parties to prevent harassment from occurring, mediate or facilitate off-the-record conversations between people involved, provide an early warning about sexual harassment to campus leaders without disclosing the identities of specific individuals, and make timely recommendations regarding workshops, policies, procedures, and other initiatives.

Liz: Upon editing the 12 stories, was there a common theme among them?

Shereen: I am reluctant to identify a common theme among the stories because I don’t want to impose my perceptions on readers’ interpretations.  I would rather encourage readers of this blog to read the stories themselves and identify the themes that they see. I will, however, offer an example with hope that it might stimulate the broader thinking of readers. As you may glean from my earlier comments, one theme that stands out for me is self-determination. The ombuds in the 12 stories strive to empower people to make their own decisions about addressing their sexual harassment concerns.  

Liz: Why would university constituents be interested in reading your article and these stories?

Shereen: Some students, faculty, staff, and administrators are not aware of how ombuds assist people in sexual harassment cases. One reason for their lack of awareness is that the details of ombuds work are confidential and off-the-record. The collection of stories I edited overcame this obstacle by allowing the authors to be anonymous and to disguise and protect the identities of the people and organizations involved in their cases. Reading the article and stories will help university constituents understand the ombuds role and the nature of ombuds work in a way that has rarely been available. It will provide readers with a vivid understanding of some of the important ways ombuds help people with sexual harassment concerns. 

Liz: What can readers expect from Part 2?

Shereen: The JIOA announced a Call for Papers, inviting researchers to submit a manuscript for publication in Part 2 of the special issue on sexual harassment. Part 2 will be a collection of research studies in which authors analyze the 12 ombuds stories to identify common themes and patterns. All research methods and perspectives are welcome. The goal of Part 2 is to explore the stories in depth, stimulate discussion, and provide more insight into the nature of ombuds work. I hope readers will read the Call for Papers and submit their research for publication!  

By: An interview between Elizabeth “Liz” Hill, Associate Director, University of Colorado Boulder Ombuds Office and Shereen Bingham, Professor Emeritus and former Ombuds at the University of Nebraska Omaha