Wayne Blair, Nationally Recognized Ombuds Leader, Shares Expertise in South Africa
The University Ombuds Office offers all members of the Carolina community a safe space for talking through tough problems and concerns. The office was established in 2005 as a result of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor’s Task Force for a Better Workplace, designed to improve working conditions for all Carolina employees.
The man tapped to spearhead the development of that office was Wayne Blair, formerly of Columbia University. Under Blair’s leadership, the University Ombuds Office has increasingly been recognized as one of the leading ombuds programs in the country — not just in higher education, but also among corporate and government ombuds offices.
Blair, who is originally from Jamaica and was raised in New York City, was first introduced to the world of ombuds work while working in student affairs at Columbia. When approached about his interest in filling a newly created associate university ombuds officer role, Blair had no idea what to expect.
“I soon realized that the scope of responsibility was really important,” Blair said. “I enjoyed the work right from the start because it allowed me to problem solve on a totally different level.”
Over the course of his career, Blair has been involved with the International Ombudsman Association (IOA). Last July, the group called on him to join a team in South Africa teaching courses in ombuds work.
“The South African government was encouraging all public colleges and universities to create ombuds programs,” Blair said. One school, the University of Cape Town (UCT), already had a program, and looking at the data, they saw that they didn’t have as many issues as other schools and tied that directly to their ombuds program.”
Along with team members from the Rochester Institute of Technology, the World Bank and McKinsey and Company, Blair taught a three-day course at UCT called Foundations of Organizational Ombuds and a more advanced course in ombuds work.
These courses were initially targeted toward university employees who would be assuming roles in the newly created ombuds offices, and included participants from the University of Mpumalanga, the University of Stellenbosch, and other schools. Participants also came from municipalities, court systems and branches of the South African military, including the City of Johannesburg, the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality and the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice.
“It was one of the most rewarding experiences,” Blair said. “I remember watching Nelson Mandela come out of prison. To see that and then go to post-apartheid South Africa and see some of the changes – they’ve come such a long way, and still have a way to go, but it’s extraordinary.”
Blair explained that the strikingly global and diverse atmosphere of South Africa, combined with one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, primed the country for the development of ombuds programs.
“There is an expectation that all public institutions be transformative and that’s written right in the constitution,” he said. “Many people expressed the hope that other African countries close to South Africa would role model the country’s efforts in ombuds work, especially as it relates to conflict resolution and conflict management.”
Looking back on his week in South Africa, Blair said the courses were well received by both the participants and the IOA, and he’d be thrilled to have a similar opportunity again. He also recently delivered the keynote address at the IOA’s annual conference in early April, “Reimagining the Role of the Organizational Ombuds,” a talk informed by his work in South Africa.
“It was such a fantastic experience, and my first time in Africa,” Blair said. “I remember sitting there, eating seafood and chatting with the locals. Many things I saw and heard reminded me of Jamaica. It was so interesting to see the difference in culture but also the commonalities.”