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Longacre resolves cases as UH's Ombudsperson

What started as a proposal from the University of Houston Faculty Senate and Staff Council has evolved into an ombudsperson office that has handled more than 40 cases since its inception.

Heading the office is a Teri Elkins Longacre, who knows first hand the intricacies of the campus,
as she is an alumna and associate professor of management.

Longacre earned a doctorate in management from UH in 1995 and a J.D. from the UH Law Center in 1997. She joined the UH faculty as a visiting assistant professor in 1995 and was named associate professor at the Bauer College of Business in 2003.

Longacre said she is excited about bringing her interest and expertise in human resources and employment to the Office of Ombuds Services. She recently discussed the office and its goals with UH Today.

Q  How does the office benefit faculty and staff?
A  The office’s goals are to offer faculty and staff a dispute resolution mechanism that previously didn’t exist on campus and to provide them with access to an individual who is neutral and who isn’t affiliated with any formal reporting structure.

The office gives faculty and staff an informal and confidential way to ask questions and a person who can cut through chains of command to get answers. The position also facilitates communication in a way that faculty and staff may not be able to do themselves and helps them resolve employment issues. The primary benefit is to help provide the type of working environment in which faculty and staff are happy and productive.

Q  How many cases has the office received thus far?
A  I started taking cases about a year ago in the first week of September. During the 2006-2007 academic year, I had 48 cases. That’s about average. I was expecting about one new case per week based on my research of other ombudsman programs at universities, including The University of Texas at Austin, Georgia State and Texas Tech universities. One thing that has surprised me is the higher number of cases from faculty than staff, so I am working to increase awareness of the office among staff.

Q  What type of cases have you received?
A  They vary. I have a number of faculty cases related to tenure, including the appeal process. I received a number of policy inquiries, asking which policies might apply to particular situations and how they might apply, as well as calls seeking clarification of ambiguities in policies. There have been a number of cases involving staff disciplinary actions. I have participated in the beginning of that process, trying to resolve the issues informally. I do not participate in any formal procedures. I have also received cases regarding campus security, resource allocation, interpersonal conflict, communication difficulties, career management, and group dynamics issues.

Q  How do you resolve these cases?
A  Some people just want to talk. This often involves assisting with identifying issues, developing communication strategies, and evaluating options. In other cases, I’ve worked with groups to facilitate communication and provide frameworks for strategic planning. A lot of what I do involves getting answers. In cases dealing with disciplinary issues, I’ve brought together staff members and supervisors to discuss the situation. To my knowledge in these cases, the grievance process stopped there. I try to help resolve problems at the lowest possible level and prevent issues from escalating to very large problems such as formal grievances because that process is so adversarial.

I recently presented an annual report to the administration this month. The report contains information about my activities as ombudsperson and includes a number of tables regarding the types of cases I’ve seen over the past year, summarizing visitors’ positions, college or division affiliations, issues and concerns, as well as strategies utilized by me in resolving cases. No confidential information is revealed in the report. The report also provides information on trends across cases and includes recommendations for addressing the problems I’ve seen thus far.

Q  Since this is a new position at UH, how have you been received by the campus community?
A  Everybody on campus has been supportive of the position and of me, which I really appreciate. Staff Council and Faculty Senate were instrumental in creating the position. They and the administration continue to support me.

Q  Why did you accept the position?
A  When I learned about the position, I was very excited about it because the position was a good match for me. I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a law degree and a doctorate in management. My specific interests are in employment law and human resource management. When I was offered the position, I accepted immediately.

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