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Release: Aug. 13, 1999

UI should offer training in managing workplace conflict, ombudsperson reports

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa needs to provide its department managers with better training in handling workplace conflicts, according to the 13th annual report from the Office of the Ombudsperson.

For two years in a row the most frequent complaint the office has heard from faculty and staff members has been related to "workplace issues," said Maile Sagen, university co-ombudsperson. To address these complaints, the ombuds office is recommending that the UI Human Resources department work with the university ombudspersons to develop an "integrated conflict management system" through which managers could receive training in how to diffuse conflicts and tensions among their employees.

This initiative along with assessing the unmet needs of UI graduate students will be focus areas for the next year in the ombuds office, Sagen said.

During the last year, the office saw a significant rise in the number of student contacts, primarily due to an increase in graduate student complaints. Among the 332 new cases reported to the office in 1998-99, 106 — or 32 percent — had to do with graduate students. The office also responded to 63 undergraduate cases, 52 faculty cases, 105 staff cases, and 6, who were either anonymous or outside the university. Overall, the office handled 37 percent more student cases than in the 1997-98 academic year and 31 percent fewer staff cases than in the previous year.

Most student complaints involved academic issues, with undergraduates primarily concerned with exams and grades and graduate students primarily concerned about committee members and the lack of clarity regarding their qualifying exams.

This year's report also notes that the university needs to be more timely in responding to questions and concerns. "Many of the complaints we hear come from people who are frustrated after running from one office to the next looking for an answer and not receiving one," Sagen said. "People deserve answers. They may not like the answer they get, but they at least deserve to get a prompt response."

The report notes that some problems are more complex and therefore may take longer to resolve, but that when this is the case an explanation of the delay should be provided along with some indication as to when a decision might be made. "We look to the administration for leadership in reminding those at every level of the university of the need to increase their responsiveness to internal concerns," the report states.

The ombuds office also reports that after spending time in the last year assessing the needs of transfer and non-traditional students, it found that the existing orientation programs and support services sometimes "prove ineffective for these students, which can affect their educational progress adversely."

The office recommended that the Provost Office conduct "a detailed needs assessment of transfer and non-traditional students, with special attention to their orientation needs."

UI President Mary Sue Coleman appoints university ombudspersons. Sagen serves as the staff ombudsperson, and Lois Cox has just completed a two-year term as faculty ombudsperson. Bernard Sorofman, a UI associate professor of pharmacy, has been appointed to replace Cox.

The full text of the 13th annual report is available on the Web at or by mail from the UI Office of the Ombudsperson, C108 Seashore Hall, Iowa City, Iowa 52242.