Student mediation: helpers without a home

The Student Center for Dispute Resolution, a student-involved activity that had hoped for Student Fee Committee funding and space for an office, currently has neither. It is operating as a phone number and e-mail address.

At one time, after it opened Feb. 1, students and faculty involved in the center thought they might gain SFC funding, plus the prospect of an office in Smith Memorial Student Union.

By mid-February, they were turned down for SFC funding. By the end of the month they knew the lack of SFC funding meant cancellation of their space on the Smith mezzanine.

"We’re now open," said A.J. Arriola, assistant professor of sociology and director of the center. "We just don’t have an address."

The mission of the center is to provide a safe environment to help PSU students find equitable solutions as a nonviolent alternative to interpersonal disputes. The mediation process is conducted by students in the conflict resolution graduate program (all certified mediators) with faculty supervision. The center provides a haven where students can have a dispute mediated without involving an administration office.

The Student Fee Committee, by a vote of four to two with one abstention, eventually turned down the center’s request for $166,636. The center had not applied for a budget initially and made its first application for funding in the mid-February SFC appeals hearings. At that time, the center was optimistic about getting funding, with an understanding that it had been assured space in Smith Center.

The budget allocation, the SFC ruled, would violate a guideline of the process. An applicant for funding must first be registered as a Student Organization Council (SOC) group for at least one full year before seeking fees as a Student Activities and Leadership Program group. For the SFC to approve a budget would have required an exception to the guidelines.

Actually, said Arriola, the center faces obstacles to becoming a standard SALP organization. She said she was informed by Michael Soto, Chief of Campus Public Safety, that CPSO could not make referrals to the center if it became an SALP group, for reasons of student confidentiality.

The center expected from the start that most of its clients would be referrals from CPSO, the Ombuds office, the Affirmative Action office and Legal and Mediation Services. Third party students could initiate referrals.

Two student leaders involved in Smith space allocation said they had little choice but to withdraw the space commitment.

Nicole Browning, chair of the Smith Advisory Board’s space allocation subcommittee, said, "Smith Center space is intended to house student organizations that facilitate the education and learning experience for students." In that context, the mediation center might seem to qualify, since the mediators would be students.

However, added Wafa Ghnaim-Alston, chair of the space allocation subcommittee, "The Smith Center space is intended to be allocated to student fee-funded organizations."

Both Browning and Ghnaim-Alston said space had been held open for the mediation center only pending outcome of the mediation center’s appeal for SFC funding. When funding was denied, the offer for space was cancelled.

One of the questionable factors was that the mediation center office would not be entirely student-run. Arriola explained that some of the budget would have paid her as the part-time director and there would be a paid full-time office receptionist. Browning pointed out that this meant the center would not be entirely student-managed and the receptionist position might likely become a classified staff position.

Browning said she had encouraged the people involved in the mediation center to reconsider their position. She suggested they might eventually become a student organization under the Student Activities and Leadership Program (SALP) but they seemed reluctant to alter their concept.

"If they do not become a student organization, they are not eligible for space," Browning summarized.

Arriola explained how the mediation process differs from arbitration or a court case.

"The mediator is not the arbiter," she said. The process starts when a third party asks, "Will you mediate this dispute?" The center invites the disputants to come in, one at a time. Everything is confidential. Two student mediators, with a faculty supervisor, debrief each disputant separately. The mediators then raise the question, "Is this something we can do? Or should the dispute be referred to a different office?"

The process tends to slow down the underlying dispute, Arriola said. Typically, the mediator might ask each disputing party, "What do you think the other person would say what the problem is?"

When the disputants are brought together, they are asked, "What’s your best thinking about how this can be resolved?" Student mediators do not resolve the dispute. They guide the disputants to resolve the dispute themselves.

"Mediation is not always a success," Arriola said. "Both parties have to be willing and open."

There is a feeling among some student leaders – who declined to be identified by name – that the mediation service seems a worthy idea but it needs to grow and develop through the accepted process. It could qualify as an SOC group, progress to become a funded SALP organization and eventually morph into a service organization.

A model could be the Women’s Resource Center. It started as a small group called the Women’s Union. It grew and progressed to become the Women’s Resource Center, with space in Smith Center. This year it carved out its own territory as a full-blown service center in the basement of Montgomery Hall. The center has a staff coordinator, Aimee Shattuck. Some such progression could be the most promising route for the dispute resolution center.

The Student Center for Dispute Resolution may be telephoned at 503-725-7237. Its website is and e-mail is [email protected].