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IOWA CITY — Chanelle Reese’s first experience in conflict resolution didn’t go as planned.
As a third-grader, she was chosen to be a conflict manager in her school.
“I had to put on this little vest and make sure everybody treated other people fairly,” she said. “There was a kid who stepped out of the lunch line and cut in front of everyone else.”
When Reese said “You can’t do that,” the other student stepped on her foot, touched her glasses and pushed her. She pushed back and got an in-school suspension.
“That little thing stuck with me,” she said. “I’m always going to stand up for what is fair.”
Last month, University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson named Reese ombudsperson for the UI, succeeding Cynthia Joyce, who retired in March after 15 years in the position. Reese will start June 21 at a salary of $94,500 a year.
The UI ombudsperson provides informal conflict resolution, mediation and advocacy for fair treatment and process for students, faculty or staff. The services are confidential, neutral and independent of university administration.
In 2020-2021, the office helped 646 people, with staff representing 41 percent of those served. Faculty made up 28 percent and students 25 percent, according to the office’s most recent annual report.
Nearly half the conflicts the ombudsperson’s office handled were related to evaluative relationships, and about one-fourth of those who filed a complaint cited disrespectful behavior. Some of the primary issues of concern were related to COVID-19, diversity, equity and inclusion, and academic accommodations for students, the report states.
Reese has been associate ombudsperson at the University of California-Merced since May 2020 while also working remotely as a senior associate in the ombudsperson office of the American Red Cross until October 2021.
Before that, she was a dispute resolution coordinator for the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland.
Reese earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Old Dominion University, in Virginia, and worked in banking before deciding to go to graduate school.
“People always told me I should go to law school, but the only thing I liked about the law was negotiations,” Reese said.
She earned a master’s degree in negotiation and conflict management from the University of Baltimore and had plans to be an arbitrator. But Reese discovered being an ombudsperson suited her better.
“Being an ombuds combines my love for education and my ability to strategically let people know what their options are,” she said.
Not only is Reese empathetic with those filing complaints, but she enjoys finding alternative options for conflict resolution.
“I think about ‘What would I do in this case?’ I’ve never given guidance I wouldn’t do,” she said.
Conflict resolution in a university setting often involves parties who may continue to see each other or work together for years, Reese said. Smoothing disputes is important because an academic unit may not function as well if two people have an unresolved issue.
Reese described a situation in California in which a graduate student had concerns with their adviser and wanted to switch. While there was a new adviser willing to help, the student and adviser were having trouble communicating about expectations, Reese said.
“Based on what I heard, I knew if I could just get both of these people in the room together with me and facilitate a conversation, they could iron out their differences,” she said.
She convinced the grad student and professor to attend mediation, where they came up with a game plan.
“I actually got a hug from the student,” Reese said. “It meant a lot to me.”
At Iowa, Reese will have a staff of four and report to President Barbara Wilson.
One of the ombudsperson’s tools is reporting up to leadership when there are problems without breaching confidentiality of complainants, she said. That way, changes can be considered to benefit the whole university.
The speed with which Reese was hired — two months from job posting to offer — let her know the UI acts quickly on good ideas, she said.
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