President Powers to hire mediator for staff conflicts

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UT staff will soon have similar conflict resolution resources as faculty and students. Interviews for a new staff ombudsperson position began Thursday. UT Staff Council recommended that President William Powers Jr., create the position in a May 2009 report created by the council’s committee on grievance procedures. Interviews for the position began Thursday. Staff currently file grievances through the Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution Office in human resources. The committee found the existing grievance procedures too formal and too affiliated with a University office to handle every type of conflict. Council chair Ben Bond said individuals in the council have wanted the president to create the position since about 2002. He said the council sent requests to the president in the past, and he has been supportive of the new position. “He was just waiting for a report that made sense,” Bond said. “I’m very happy they responded to this report so now we can move on to other staff issues.” The University has employed a student ombudsperson since 1969 and a faculty ombudsperson since 2004. “An ombudsperson provides a safe place to have off-the-record conversations related to any kind of problem related to life at the University,” said faculty ombudsperson Mary Steinhardt. Steinhardt, who is also a professor of kinesiology and health education, said if she thought her role as a professor interferes with her ability to remain neutral, she would call on the retired faculty ombudsperson to help. In addition to neutrality, both UT ombudspersons adhere to three other basic principles set out by the International Ombudsman Association: informality, confidentiality and independence. Lauren Bloom, social work graduate student and student ombudsperson, said adhering to these principles means never taking sides or advocating for any individual or group. Rather, she said she guides people to the proper resources, explains applicable University policies and mediates between willing parties. She said she also helps identify systemic problems with dated or ineffective policies for administrators and leadership groups, including Student Government and the Graduate Student Assembly. Unlike the existing part-time positions for faculty and students, the new staff ombudsperson will work full-time in that role. Charles Roeckle, deputy to the president, said Powers wanted to show support to staff despite the nearly $100-million cut to the 2012-13 budget. The staff council report estimated salaries for the full-time ombudsperson and full-time administrative assistant to total $125,000. The office will receive $2,700 annually for travel to conferences and workshops. The Office of the President will fund the staff ombudsperson office. Because of budget shortfalls, the University has cut close to 200 staff positions to date. Roeckle said beginning Thursday each of the five remaining candidates will interview with three groups of University employees, including administrators, faculty members and representatives from Staff Council. It’s intended to be a very inclusive interview process over the next four weeks or so,” Roeckle said.