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Release: Aug. 10, 2000

UI ombudsperson reports rise in incivility on campus

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- University of Iowa deans, department heads, and supervisors need more extensive training in dealing with difficult personalities and workplace conflicts, according to the 14th annual report from the UI Office of the Ombudsperson. The report notes a significant increase in reported incidents of incivility on campus, sometimes escalating to physical violence, and suggests that the university take action to teach campus leaders how to combat such negative behavior.

"We need to do a better job of communicating our expectations for classroom and workplace behavior," said Maile Sagen, university ombudsperson. "Our deans, directors, department heads, and supervisors need better training in how to handle incidents of inappropriate behavior. They should know that they don't have to handle it alone."

University officials say they are aware of the problem and have been diligently working on it. Several training sessions for employees and supervisors were offered over the past year, and additional programs are scheduled for this fall.

The provost's office is planning a September workshop on civility issues for departmental executive officers, which will cover the variety of campus resources -- from counseling services to public safety -- that can be of assistance in dealing with inappropriate behavior.

Over the past year, the UI Office of Human Resources and Work-Life has offered a series of workshops through the UI Integrated Employee Assistance Program and the Management Series 2000 program. The employee assistance program offered 10 workshops, including "Anger in the Work Place" and "Dealing with Negativity in the Work Place." The series for managers was a 10-month program consisting of nine programs, such as "Mediation Skills for Supervisors" and "Tuning In, The Art of Listening."

For the coming year, the Work Life office will conduct additional training for supervisors on creating respectful workplaces.

The ombudsperson's report also suggests that the UI develop an ethics statement for staff members, similar to the one in place for faculty, which outlines expectations of civil behavior as well as a grievance process when those expectations are not met.

"We need to do more to get the word out that we're not going to tolerate this behavior," Sagen said. "People should be told right away if something they're doing is unacceptable so the behavior can change immediately. Our concern is that not only are reports of verbal conflicts up in each constituent group, it is going beyond verbal to physical aggression."

Nearly a third of all complaints to the office in the last year from faculty, staff and students were related to issues of incivility, including 11 reports of physical and/or verbal abuse, the report indicates. The report goes so far as to say that this incivility rises to the level of harassment.

"While there are many definitions of workplace harassment, we would define it as any form of offensive treatment or behavior which creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive work environment," the report states. "It can be verbal or physical behavior which is disrespectful, disparaging, threatening, abusive or violent. We suggest that the university consider adopting such a definition and that an effective complaint procedure be in place for those students and employees who believe they have been victims of such conduct."

Sagen said the increased use of email might be contributing to incivility on campus because people will say things in email messages that they would never say face to face. But there is plenty of in-person incivility as well, she said, so email is not entirely to blame.

Another culprit may be academic stress, Sagen said. In many cases, students cite the pressure to earn top grades, and faculty members cite pressure to win grants, publish research, and earn tenure when describing incidents of unacceptable behavior.

"People feeling pressure sometimes behave badly," Sagen said.

For 1999-2000, the office reported 331 new cases, down one from the previous year. The last year saw a significant increase in staff complaints, a comparable decrease in student complaints and roughly the same number of faculty complaints as compared with the 1998-99 report.

Overall, the office handled 103 complaints from students, divided almost equally between undergraduates and graduate students, 171 staff complaints, 50 faculty complaints, and seven other complaints that were either anonymous or outside the university.

UI President Mary Sue Coleman appoints university ombudspersons. Sagen serves as the staff ombudsperson, and Bernard Sorofman, a UI associate professor of pharmacy, serves as faculty ombudsperson.

The full text of the 14th 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.