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Committee helps deal with complaints, disputes

By Seth Mauzy
Arizona Daily Wildcat
August 30, 2005
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Students and faculty have the option to work out small disputes and other issues in an informal way before going to administration or Campus Health Services.

The UA Ombuds Committee, comprising UA faculty and staff volunteers, works to help students, other faculty and the general public solve their problems with the university before they reach a more formal process.

Some common problems mediated by the committee include disputes with professors, problems with superiors and intellectual property disputes.

These problems can be dealt with formally with termination proceedings, filing a formal complaint and speaking to an attorney, but the services of an Ombuds mediator can also be utilized.

Committee members are required to undergo 40 hours of training, a procedure that is invaluable, said J.D. Garcia, a physics professor.

"The training consists of discussing past cases, as well as meeting with experts in mediating disputes and other ombudsmen from around the country," said Garcia, who has been a UA Ombudsman since the program's inception in 1992.

The committee abides by the standards set forth by the International Ombudsman Association, which stresses confidentiality, trust and communication.

"We are here to make people aware of the resources available to them in solving their problems so they can make informed choices," said program director Claudia D'Albini. "Confidentiality is always paramount."

Working with a committee member does not prevent anyone from examining a formal process. However, once formal action has been taken, a committee member may no longer offer assistance.

D'Albini said the committee is also a cost saver compared to more formal processes.

"The International Ombudsman Association estimates that formal proceedings can cost as much as $25,000, including lawsuits, time and resources spent in formal resolution," D'Albini said.

Last year, the committee handled more than 400 complaints, although that number represents only a fraction of the people assisted, D'Albini said.

"The 400 figure represents the number of initial contacts that were made to the Ombuds and does not include the parties on the other side of the conflicts," D'Albini said. "About 25 of those complaints were made on behalf of groups."

Every issue the committee handles is confidential, which means there is no record of how many formal complaints are avoided each year through the program, but the number of complaints handled that do not end up in the formal process is "substantial," D'Albini said.

The committee also submits an annual report to the UA president outlining the programs efforts and describing some of the more common problems people have had with the university.

"Our program is not about changing campus policies," Garcia said. "But the report does give us a chance to offer guidance to help the institution work better."

The UA Ombuds Committee receives funding from the President's Office, and the president selects its members. Despite this, D'Albini said the committee has no problems remaining objective when dealing with university problems.

"Except when dealing with funding, the committee is totally independent of the administration," D'Albini said. "We have ombuds in departments all over campus to ensure there are no conflicts of interest, and no records are kept of conversations with an ombudsman."

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