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Cynthia Joyce, Office of the Ombudsperson

UI ombudsperson Cynthia Joyce
Cynthia Joyce, University of Iowa ombudsperson. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Ombudsperson: it’s not a name that slides easily off the tongue. And it’s a position about which there are many misconceptions. But Cynthia Joyce, the University’s full-time professional ombudsperson, wants to make it clear that those seeking assistance resolving conflicts can be assured of confidentiality and neutrality from her and her colleagues in the Office of the Ombudsperson.

In this issue, Joyce shares with fyi readers the workings of that office, how she stays positive after a day of hearing about difficult situations, and why her professional training doesn’t always work when she’s mediating disagreements between her own children.

Not a lot of people want to be an ombudsperson when they grow up. Did you?

I’m drawn to fields where you need to learn all the time, and that’s certainly true in my role as ombudsperson. Every situation I encounter is different, and there is not one way to respond. I’m constantly learning new ways to deal with conflicts effectively.

What kind of background and training do you have?

I have a BA in psychology and worked in medical research for seven years. I was considering grad school in natural resources management and ended up in a joint program at Yale in environmental studies and the School of Management. I earned two master’s degrees and was especially transfixed by what I’d learned about organizational behavior. I completed training in mediation in 1990 and worked for 12 years as an administrator for the nonprofit community mediation organization in New Haven where I’d trained. For six years I looked for a university ombudsperson job and then was offered two at the same time. I think that’s a sign that universities are moving away from hiring solely from within to hiring people who are professionally trained in conflict resolution.

What kinds of skills are important for an ombudsperson to have?

There’s a code of ethics for ombudspersons. The code says that ombudspersons should be informal, independent, neutral, and confidential. The needed skills flow from these principles. For example, it’s important that I keep confidential everything I hear from visitors to the office, even from my husband. It also happens that two people, with two points of view, will come separately to my office about the same situation. I need to keep them separate physically and also make sure that I keep separate the information they share.

Ombudspersons also need to have the courage to speak up. If we see patterns of problems around campus, it’s our job to point those patterns out to the appropriate person or department. And if we’re given permission by the person who’s come to our office, we may need to give feedback to that person’s supervisor, or whoever is appropriate. It’s not easy, because we’re rarely sharing good news.

When should a person visit your office?

Our office is a resource for students, staff, and faculty, and people come for many reasons. We see people at both ends of the spectrum, early and late in a conflict. Most typically, we see undergraduate students regarding academic issues, graduate students who are concerned about their relationship with their advisor, staff who come to us with workplace conflicts, and faculty who are having conflicts with colleagues or their DEO or a concern about tenure and promotion.

In your annual report, you note an increasing number of visits to the ombudspersons’s office. What do you make of that?

It’s hard to know exactly how to interpret those numbers, because we actually see a small percentage of the University community and we see the extreme cases. The increased numbers don’t necessarily mean that problems are increasing, but could simply mean that people are seeking help more often. We do serve a larger percentage of women and minorities than University demographics would predict. We believe it’s because we provide a safe place for these groups to voice concerns.

Some people believe if you come to the ombudsperson’s office, you’ll be labeled as a “troublemaker.” Is that true?


A few of my favorite things ...

Hobbies: Reading, baking

Food: Chocolate

Drink: Tons of water

Reading: Mysteries; Dorothy Sayers is a favorite author

Movie: Low-brow, goofy things such as Legally Blonde and Men in Black

Music: '60s and '70s rock n' roll—Grateful Dead a special fave

Television: Scrubs and House (with her son); Grey's Anatomy (without her son)

Web site: Accuweather, YouTube (her son shows her music videos)


If you come to us, no one will ever know you came, without your permission. People don’t like to air their dirty laundry, but it’s very important we have resources on campus for people who are scared to or unable to resolve issues on their own. We are not an outside resource. Our role is to help individuals and departments deal with problems in a confidential and supportive way. We don’t point fingers: we’ve very respectful.

Besides talking with people about existing conflicts, what services does the ombudspersons’ office offer?

We participate in Human Resources management and frontline supervisors series and we also do training on the departmental level, teaching communication skills, conflict management styles, how to handle difficult conversations, how to be proactive.

What’s one thing you’d really like to emphasize about your office?

Confidentiality is the single most important aspect of the office. The only reason we’d break confidentiality was for an issue of serious, imminent, physical harm. If someone tells us “I plan to hurt someone,” we can’t keep that to ourselves. But if you’ve done something immoral or unethical, we won’t turn you in to your supervisor or HR. There is no risk at all to talking with us. You don’t even have to meet us at our office—we can arrange to meet elsewhere. (The confidentiality is not protected by Iowa law so it’s possible we could be subpoenaed, but I’m not aware that it’s ever happened in our office.)

Wow—it sounds as though you deal with some heavy things every day.

It can be exhausting, but not really depressing. We do deal with some serious and troubling issues, and I need to be supportive and help people understand their options and also accept if they choose to let the problem continue. That’s the hardest part for me.

How do you keep from letting it get you down?

Personally, exercise is key: I walk to work and try to get to the fitness center. If I let myself get too worn down, I’m less able to help people. Also, we’re able to share issues with one another in our office (Craig Porter, clinical professor of pediatrics, is the half-time ombudsperson) and it helps to have that safe resource.

What’s the positive side of your job?

It’s tremendously satisfying when I’m able to help someone with a problem, particularly a problem that’s gone on for a long time. Problems often have been percolating for quite some time before someone decides to sit down, face-to-face, to discuss it. I also find it very satisfying to facilitate difficult meetings, to help people address issues directly and come up with a solution. I follow up on situations and that’s when I’ll sometimes hear, “Things have improved, my relationship with X is better than it’s ever been.” I get a real high when I hear that and it keeps me motivated.

What would surprise people to know about you?

I’m a pretty domestic person. I try to keep my work at work and at home I love to cook and garden. I’ve got two kids, a daughter in college and a son in high school, and keeping up with them provides a good antidote to work-related stress.

Do you mediate arguments between your kids?

There’s a joke among mediators: “Don’t try this at home.” Using conflict resolution with my family doesn’t work very well, because I’m just not neutral at home. My kids will often say things like, “I can’t believe a professional ombudsperson would say that!”

by Linzee Kull McCray

Past Profiles

Scott King, Office of International Students and Scholars

John-Mark Stensvaag, College of Law

Cathy Fountain, Business Manager's Office

Pamela Trimpe, Pentacrest Museums

Bob Kirby, University of Iowa Honors Program


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