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Release: Immediate

UI Office of Ombudsperson sees 7 percent increase in clients

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- The University of Iowa Office of the Ombudsperson saw 386 new clients during the 1996-97 fiscal year, a 7 percent increase over the 361 new contacts during the previous fiscal year.

But while the overall caseload was up only slightly, there were some dramatic changes in who contacted the office. Professional and scientific (P and S) staff contacts were up 54 percent, from 81 in fiscal year 1995-96 to 125 in fiscal year 1996-97. (UI fiscal years begin July 1 and end June 30.) Meanwhile, contacts by undergraduate students declined 31 percent, from 72 in fiscal year 1995-96 to 50 in fiscal year 1996-97.

The caseload statistics are part of an annual report completed by ombudspersons John Delaney and Maile Sagen.

The Office of the Ombudsperson is an alternative dispute resolution service that members of the UI community can contact if they have questions about university policies or if they have problems that cannot be resolved through regular channels.

The office "offers a neutral and confidential place where faculty, staff and students can come to resolve issues informally," the report states. "The Ombudsperson responds to each client according to the matter brought forward. Some contact the office for information only, some come to discuss options and seek advice, some come with serious complaints [and] grievances."

In addition to pursuing individual case work, the office also serves the university by working to bring to the attention of administrators any policies, programs, personnel or institutional decisions which may violate the rights of students, faculty or staff.

During the fiscal year just completed, there were 12 general requests for information but also 24 complaints of harassment or discrimination, including 11 complaints of alleged violations of the UI policy on sexual harassment and consensual relationships.

Noting the increase in staff contacts, the Delaney and Sagen said that the past year could be characterized as "the year of staff conflict." The two most important factors in that increase, they said, were the downsizing at UI Hospitals and Clinics and the "increased number of complaints from P and S employees in units that the Ombuds Office has deemed to be dysfunctional."

Among faculty, one-third of the contacts were about tenure and promotion issues. Nearly one-quarter of the remaining contacts by faculty involved job conflicts and job dissatisfaction.

The majority of contacts by students involved academic issues such as grades, exams, credits and courses. About 15 percent of the student contacts focused on financial issues, such as fees and costs. Among graduate students, 10 percent of the contacts involved allegations of harassment and discrimination.

The report concludes with some observations and recommendations. Some highlights:

* The UI Staff Council was praised for its efforts to review and update UI personnel policies. At the same time, however, the ombudspersons said the process could be streamlined if the UI director of human resources would draft policies and submit them to the Staff Council for review.

* Noting that a large portion of staff contacts came from a small number of units, Delaney and Sagen said "it may be time to consider the appointment of a professional dispute resolution officer who could work with dysfunctional units and provide conflict management and dispute resolution training across the campus."

* The ombudspersons renewed their request to be included in orientation programs for undergraduate students. "The large decline in complaints by undergraduate students this year (31 percent) is of considerable concern," they wrote. "One reason for this outcome is certainly the lack of awareness by undergraduates of the existence of the Ombuds Office."

* The university has made progress in modifying facilities and services to accommodate individuals with physical disabilities, but additional structural changes should be made more "expeditiously," said the ombudspersons. In addition, more attention needs to be paid to people with "non-visible disability complaints, particularly learning disorders and psychiatric disabilities."

* Because of continuing disputes among faculty, staff and students about authorship, it is time for individual departments and units to develop authorship policies. "Because authorship norms differ greatly across disciplines and units, it is unlikely that a university-wide policy would be effective or appropriate," the ombudspersons said. "Our experience suggests that the absence of a policy -the norm in many units because it is seen as the best way of maintaining flexibility - is not a solution."

Copies of the entire annual report may be obtained by calling the Office of the Ombudsperson at (319) 335-3608. The report may also be viewed on the World Wide Web at this address: