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Ombudsperson offers assistance from a different perspective

8.2.2013

By Dave Jones

Photo: Ombudsperson Susan Kee-Young Park

Susan Kee-Young Park, the campus's first ombudsperson, arranged for a screen of live bamboo at her office's entryway, to help with the confidential nature of the work of the ombuds office

BREATHE ...

Take some time. Breathe. Put yourself in a better place.

Advice from UC Davis’ first ombudsperson, Susan Kee-Young Park, and she’s offering it before you even get to her office.

The “breathe” message accompanies a dozen campus images — beautiful landscapes — in “Breathing Space” on the Office of the Ombuds website. The site’s “Tips & Strategies” section includes a 2013 TEDxUCDavis video in which Allison Ledgerwood, assistant professor of psychology, discusses “Getting Stuck in the Negatives (and How to Get Unstuck).”

"My hope is that someone who may feel upset, who may feel trapped in that mind set, can take a breather and let the adrenaline dissipate a bit," Park said. "It's a matter of self-care and also a way to get to a place where you can think more clearly about what to do next."

Difficulties with a peer or supervisor. Harassment or discrimination. A cultural misunderstanding. You need to make an apology, or you believe you are owed one. Threats or retaliation.

Any one of these issues, and many more, can make you dread coming to work, which isn’t productive for you or the university. “And it’s usually both sides who are dreading it,” said Susan Kee-Young Park, who arrived at UC Davis on June 3 as the campus’s first ombudsperson.

She is an attorney and formerly served in Hawaii as a judge and state insurance commissioner, and she has previous ombuds experience at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Now she runs the UC Davis Office of the Ombuds — a safe, confidential, independent and informal problem-solving and conflict management resource for faculty, staff, administrators and postdocs.

“My office is all about helping the flow of communication, to help people look at issues from different perspectives, and become conflict competent,” Park said. And to deal with issues before they turn into crises.

Despite little publicity, Park said, she is dealing with an average of two cases a week — cases involving peer-to-peer or staff-to-supervisor conflicts, or staff or faculty issues with administrators.

Park said the ombuds office is a supplement to and not a substitute for other resources such as Mediation Services, the Harassment and Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program, and the Academic and Staff Assistance Program, or ASAP.

“We are not counselors,” she said, referring to ASAP personnel who work with faculty and staff one-on-one. “We can bring in the ‘other’ party, like they do at Mediation Services, to conduct mediated discussions. But we can also engage in shuttle diplomacy, talking with each party separately.”

Further, the ombudsperson has a responsibility to “look at the larger campus situation,” Park said.

As the ombuds office website declares: “It’s also our job to bring troublesome trends and systemic issues to the attention of those at the university who might be able to deal with them” — all the way up the chancellor’s office.

You retain control

But first things first: your issues. You need to untangle a complicated issue. You've had a workplace dispute. You're looking for appropriate ways to frame and discuss issues. You have a disagreement over whom should get credit for a particular project.

Maybe you just want to be heard. Or you don’t know where else to go. Or you don’t like formal channels. Or you tried other avenues but didn’t get anywhere.

“We’re here to listen,” Park said. “We will discuss your issues with you and help clarify them — and that includes considering other perspectives.”

“And we will ask what you would like to see happen, if anything.”

The ombudsperson’s tool kit also includes:

  • Going over relevant policies and procedures.
  • Identifying a range of options, including other campus resources.
  • Coaching you in preparation for difficult conversations.

What you do after that is up to you — you retain control. There is no record of your visit.

Park takes the confidentiality of her work very seriously. Outside the ombuds office in Surge IV, she arranged to have the entryway screened off by live bamboo. Inside, there’s a private waiting room.

The office does not use email to schedule appointments or provide ombuds services, and the phones are all cellular, separate from the university’s land-line system — to keep the records private. If you feel like visiting, please call first.

In serving as the campus ombudsperson, Park follows these four principles, based on the Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice of the International Ombudsman Association:

  • Confidentiality — “We will not reveal a visitor’s identity or concerns to anyone without the visitor’s permission,” except to address an imminent risk of serious harm, according to the UC Office of the Ombuds website.
  • Independence — The ombuds office reports to the Office of the Chancellor for administrative and budgetary purposes only. The office has sole discretion over whether and how to deal ith a case or systemic concerns.
  • Impartiality — The office helps to identify the rights, interests and perspectives of all parties, and does not take sides. The office advocates for fair and equitable processes.
  • Informality — The office is “an informal, off-the-record recource, and does not participate in any formal adjudicative or administrative proceedings, but will advise visitors about the availability of formal procedures, if appropriate.”

(Important: Going to the ombuds office does not put UC Davis on formal notice of your concerns or grievances; other avenues are in place for formal notice, and the ombuds office can tell you what those are.)

The Office of the Ombuds is in Suite 409 of Temporary Building 203 (in Surge IV), just west of the Silo along Hutchinson Drive. Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, and by appointment at other times and places, as necessary. The telephone number is (530) 219-6750. (Students who need this kind of assistance should go to Student Affairs or Graduate Studies.)

Earlier coverage

“Campus appoints first ombudsperson: Susan Kee-Young Park,Dateline UC Davis (April 26, 2013)

Other resources

Academic and Staff Assistance Program

Harassment and Discrimination Assistance and Prevention Program (including the former Sexual Harassment Education Program)

Mediation Services

Principles of Community

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