The Office of the Ombudsperson offers UI students—as well as staff and faculty—independent, informal, and confidential conflict resolution. The office has two ombudspersons: faculty member Lois Cox, professor of law, and staff member Cynthia Joyce. Joyce recently spoke with Parent Times about how the service can assist students and parents.
Our mission is a simple one: to see that all members of the University community are treated fairly. We do this by assisting in dispute resolution and by providing access to information and services on campus. We offer a safe, confidential, and independent place for members of the community to come to voice their concerns and get some help in dealing with conflicts. The office has been at the University since 1985.
What does “independent” mean?
It means that neither Lois nor I are administrative officers of the University, and we don’t report on our cases to any administrative office or constituency group. We don’t keep records on behalf of the University, and a conversation with us is not an official complaint or grievance.
We take confidentiality very seriously. Unless a visitor gives us permission to talk with others about his or her problem, we do not tell anyone that the person talked with us or what he or she said. The only exceptions to this are if we hear that someone may be hurt or if a court orders us to provide information. Students, parents, or anyone else can talk to us about any concern they have, no matter how serious, and we will not tell anyone about the situation.
What kinds of problems does your office handle?
The issues we see run a wide range. For students, common concerns are grades, problems with teaching assistants or professors, questions about course prerequisites, class assignments, workplace issues surrounding student employment, and so forth.
We also are available to help with problems involving discrimination, sexual harassment, and student discipline. Most students at Iowa never have a serious problem, but there are more than 40,000 people working together on this campus and there are going to be conflicts. We are here to help people navigate those conflicts and, we hope, find a satisfactory resolution. There are many resources to assist in conflict resolution at this university. We’re just one resource, but we can help people find the right resource for their issue.
What do you do with the information people bring? Do you advocate for students with problems or have an enforcement function?
No, we’re a neutral resource and try to help people reach a resolution that works for everyone. We’re here to help people figure out options, to understand policies and procedures, to help them gather more information and find other resources, and then to assist through mediation, negotiation, or other means. If our visitors agree—and only if they agree—we can alert administrators to a situation. But we do not have any authority to enforce policies.
When should students and parents think about calling you for help?
The moment they realize they don’t know what to do in any situation on campus. Often, when students are having difficulties, the first person they turn to is a parent. We’d like the parents to think about us and recommend that their student call us when they are having problems, or even worrying about having problems. We can be reached at 319-335-3608 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aren’t you worried that people will call you unnecessarily?
No. There’s no such thing. If a student or a parent is worried, they need someone to call. If the solution is easy, that’s great, but we don’t want students or their parents ever to hesitate calling us. We have a lot of information and knowledge about this campus. We want to help. That’s why we’re here. I will say that while we are eager to hear from parents, we can’t proceed very far on any kind of resolution without the involvement of the student, so if a parent is concerned about a situation, but the student is not, there’s not much we can do.
What’s in your annual report to the campus?
We report the number and types of contacts we’ve had, and we comment on trends we see. This year, for example, we saw an increase in the number of students who came to us because they were facing disciplinary action. We present the report in person to administrators, Faculty Senate, Staff Council, student government, and other organizations on campus.
In some cases, campus groups take up an issue we have raised. For example, over the last few years, we have talked about the issue of disrespect on campus, that students felt disrespected by faculty, faculty by students, students by students. It was a thread we saw running through our campus culture. So this past fall the campus initiated the “Respect: Give it. Get it.” campaign, an internal messaging campaign to promote inclusion, social justice, and civility across campus. Although we didn’t develop this campaign, we believe our office helped communicate the need for this effort. The ombudsperson’s annual report is on our web site at www.uiowa.edu/~ooombuds.
by Charles S. Drum