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Conflicts tick up as students and staff return to campus, University of Iowa report shows
Nearly 1 in 3 flagged ‘disrespectful behavior’ as a concern
IOWA CITY — After dipping slightly during the height of COVID-19, visits to the University of Iowa Office of the Ombudsperson — which provides “problem solving and conflict resolution” to students, faculty and staff — increased to 661 during the fiscal year that recently ended.
That was up from 646 visitors in fiscal 2021 and was 32 percent higher than a decade earlier, when 502 people visited the office in the 2011-2012 budget year.
In 1985, the UI established its ombudsperson office, staffed by one full-time employee and a part-time employee, to be a “neutral listener, information resource, adviser, intermediary, and mediator.”
Iowa State University established its Ombuds Office in 2008 to help campus community members “manage their own conflicts early, informally, and at the lowest levels possible without the need to pursue more formal grievance processes or litigation.”
The University of Northern Iowa opened its office in 1974, according to its student newspaper. Although the office no longer exists, UNI does have “apparatuses in place to handle internal complaints,” like its Office of Compliance & Equity Management, UNI spokesman Pete Moris said.
Of the 661 visitors to the UI office last year, according to a new report, nearly half — about 46 percent — were staff; 27 percent were students; and 22 percent were faculty. The rest were classified as “other.” The most-cited concern, accounting for 55 percent of issues raised, related to an “evaluative relationship.”
“That is the relationships where somebody is in a position of authority, and they have someone under them,” UI Ombudsperson Chanelle Reese told the UI Faculty Senate this week while presenting on the report.
Nearly 1 in 3 visitors, or 32 percent, flagged “disrespectful behavior” as a concern — especially when one person had authority over another — representing an 8 percentage point increase from 24 percent in the 2020-2021 term.
“In 2021-22, the University of Iowa’s administration sought to return the campus to normal operations as we continued to act in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the new report. “We hypothesize that the increase in interpersonal contact in the workplace correlates with the elevated number of visitors who raised concerns about disrespectful behavior.”
The time away from face-to-face contact might have played a role in the dip and then the increase as the UI moved many of its operations online between spring 2020 and the 2021-2022 academic year.
“Navigating workplace dynamics in the virtual environment for a significant period has increased the probability of new frictions as people returned to the workplace,” according to the report.
The public university ombuds offices aim to minimize risks that internal conflicts pose to campus — including the prospect of lawsuits. When cases are cataloged, specific perceived risks are noted. The biggest potential risk from last year’s UI cases was loss of productivity — with 36 percent of cases threatening as much.
One notable area of concern last year was bullying, as the office fielded multiple requests for help from residents, fellows, postdoctoral scholars, graduate students, international scholars and grant-funded staff to “address the perceived bullying behavior initiated by supervising faculty members, physicians, and/or principal investigators in research labs.”
Those reports are particularly concerning, according to the report, because members of those groups often are among the campus’ most vulnerable — with some women or minorities “expressing feelings of being isolated and marginalized.”
Before the pandemic, UI reports showed visits to the office were following an upward trajectory — from 83 in the first year, reaching the 200s by year five, rising through to the upper 300s by year 10, and jumping into the 500s by 2011.
Visits peaked at 753 in 2018-2019 — pre-pandemic. They dropped to 741 in 2019-2020, although the office blamed the pandemic for exacerbating fear, stress and uncertainty and producing new conflicts. In 2020-21, visitors dropped to 646 before ticking up.
Where past reports didn’t include explicit recommendations, this year’s report — compiled by office staff and Reese, who UI hired in June — offered suggestions for several issues, including bullying.
Given that most research funding agencies have guidelines around hostile work environments, alleged deficiencies could potentially strip the university from receiving grant dollars.
“We suggest proactive coaching of (principal investigators) and faculty members to serve as a reminder that student success is part of our strategic plan as well as to draw their attention to the funding agencies’ hostile work environment guidelines and sanctions,” according to the recommendation.
To concerns over adviser relationships, the office suggested reminding mentors of the power they wield and encouraging department directors to check in with graduate students about their well-being. In addressing the “interpersonal conflict” issues, the office reported notable concerns specifically from those in the UI’s health sciences and health care operations.
“As we continue to navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we must recognize the additional stressors and enormous burden this has continued to place on health care workers, including faculty and staff who are engaged in patient care,” according to the report. “The resulting pressure is likely surfacing in ways that have contributed to interpersonal tensions and conflicts.”
The report urged continued promotion of mental health resources and called it "critical“ that administrators take proactive measures to make sure faculty and staff have ”the emotional and psychological support necessary“ to be productive and effective.
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