University of Hawaii

UT president appoints staff ombudsman

UT President William Powers Jr. announced his appointment for the University’s first ombudsman for staff members in an email Thursday.

According to the email, Jennifer Sims will fill the new position beginning July 20. Sims has worked as an ombudsman at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and an associate ombudsman at the for-profit college, Bridgepoint Education.

Her role will be to offer the University’s staff members a neutral third-party resource for informal conflict resolution. That resource is already available to students and faculty through an ombudsman designated to each group. Unlike student and faculty positions, the staff position will be full-time.

“Like the student and faculty ombuds offices, the staff ombuds will report directly to my office,” Powers wrote in his email. “Formal staff grievances will continue to be handled by the Human Resource Services Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution Office.”

The season started long ago, the stakes as high as ever. The month of March embraced the nationwide competition and whittled the field of more than 64 down to the Final Four. Now we wait to crown a winner.

While the search for the University’s next vice president for student affairs lacks the sky-high television ratings, intractable school pride and betting pools as high as G.D.P.s of small countries surrounding Monday’s game between Kansas and Kentucky and tonight’s matchup between Baylor and Notre Dame, UT students have plenty of reasons to pay attention.

The Daily Texan obtained a list of the finalists for the position last month, and the search committee, composed of faculty, administrators and students, released the list to the public last week. The finalists, selected from a pool of 77 applicants, will all hold individual open forums. The first forum will take place today from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in Main 212 and will feature Christopher Miller from Marquette University.

The other finalists are Ajay Nair from the University of Pennsylvania, Francisco Hernandez from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Gage Paine from UT-San Antonio.

The tentacles of the vice president for student affairs reach dozens of entities across campus ranging from Student Government to Gregory Gym and from Kinsolving Dining to, yes, even The Daily Texan. The position opened up after Juan Gonzalez, the current vice president, announced that he will return to teaching in July. His move, despite valiant efforts by the University’s public relations staff, was hardly interpreted as a promotion in what has been a less-than-lustrous tenure for Gonzalez.

Part of Gonzalez’s legacy will be tarnished by how he handled the near-closing of the iconic Cactus Cafe. Though not his decision, Gonzalez’s part in controlling the fallout contributed to the damage spiraling out of control, perhaps exemplified by an embarrassing interview with the Austin Chronicle titled, “Juan Gonzalez answers to no one.”

There are also lingering questions after Gary Borders, former director of Texas Student Media (TSM), said that Gonzalez forced him to resign in February. Kevin Hegarty, executive vice president and chief financial officer who was put in charge of managing the controversy, said there was a “flat-out failure in communication” between the TSM Board of Trustees and the Office of Student Affairs, according to The Daily Texan.

But Gonzalez’s tenure also included the construction of the Student Activity Center and the Almetris Duren Residence Hall. His prioritization of health and wellness programs in the face of University-wide budget cuts in early 2010 proved to be vital when mental health came into the spotlight after a student died by suicide in the PCL later that year.

Ultimately, the new vice president for student affairs will have his or her efforts guided by the Division of Student Affairs’ Strategic Plan 2011-2014, which was released in August. The top two strategic goals outlined in the plan are to enhance the first-year transition and to improve student progress from enrollment to graduation.

The push for increasing four-year graduation rates will be a defining feature of the next few years at the University. Administrators know very well that increasing graduation rates goes far beyond a simple academic problem. It encompasses social, cultural and financial realms as well. The vice president of student affairs position will be charged with overseeing the non-classroom components to make the target a reality. It’s no wonder that the position’s Final Four all spoke explicitly about supporting and enhancing the academic mission of the University in their interviews with The Daily Texan.

Students have an opportunity to influence the University’s hiring process, as the finalists will hold their open forums throughout this month. Getting a return on a March Madness bracket investment is somewhat out of our control, but students have a much more active role to play in the vice president for student affairs selection process.

Jennifer Sims, the University’s first ombudsperson for staff employees, starts her position later this month. Ombuds officers have already been available for students and faculty at UT, but Sim’s office will be the first to adresss and resolve conflicts for staff members within the University.

Photo Credit: Erika Rich | Daily Texan Staff

University administrators have appointed an official to help mediate staff conflicts on campus for the first time.

Staff Ombuds Officer Jennifer Sims will start July 20. Her office will serve as an independent, neutral third party that addresses and resolves staff conflicts and concerns with the University. The University’s Staff Council has worked with administrators to create the position since spring 2010.

Sims has previously worked as an ombudsperson for the University of Hawaii at Manoa and associate ombudsperson for Bridgepoint Education. She said she can help the University community by providing a confidential and neutral intermediary that staff members will feel comfortable working through challenges with.

“I think it’s a great thing in terms of equity because there are already faculty and student [ombuds] offices,” Sims said. “I think it says a lot about the University valuing staff enough to give them the same type of opportunities that other groups on campus have.”

UT President William Powers Jr. said in a press release Sims’ knowledge of the field will help establish the success of the new office at UT.

“She has extensive experience in dispute resolution and will serve as a strong, independent advocate for our staff,” Powers said. “The Staff Council has made an ombuds officer a priority, and I believe this position will benefit our staff and the University as a whole.”

Sims said she has not yet established how exactly her office will be structured, but it will follow the same ethics and standards of practice as the University’s student and faculty ombuds offices.
“Being an ombuds is about social justice and problem solving which is something I’m naturally drawn to,” she said. “Being on a campus is a community that’s a workable size, and you can actually see some of the fruits of your labor.”

Sims said her office will have to figure out boundaries of their responsibilities and those of other offices, but she looks forward to working with all members of the University community.

“I’m learning more about the University each day, and it seems like a great campus,” she said. “I feel that it has a sense of class that I haven’t seen in many other university campuses.”

Former Staff Council Chair Ben Bond headed the organization when Sims was selected for the position. He said in a press release that Sims is well qualified to serve as staff ombuds officer, and her office will be a helpful resource for the entire University staff.

“The Staff Council worked hard on its recommendation to the president, and we are grateful that he chose to implement it,” Bond said. “Adding the new staff ombuds will make the University of Texas at Austin a better place to work for everyone.”

Printed on 07/11/2011 as: University officials approve hire of staff-exclusive ombuds officer