Program continues to grow as WU appoints new staff ombudsperson

Jessica Kuchta-Miller, a certified organizational ombudsman practitioner, has been named the university’s first staff ombudsperson effective Sept. 14.

For most students, the word “ombudsperson” sounds more like a piece of IKEA furniture than an administrative position at Washington University—but the latter is true. Ombudsman, from the Swedish word for legal representative, is traditionally an official appointed to investigate individuals’ complaints against maladministration.

As the staff ombudsperson, Kuchta-Miller will work with various departments across the Danforth and medical campuses to resolve internal and external administrative conflicts. Kuchta-Miller said that the internal and external often intersect.

“My work falls into two broad categories: helping staff with interpersonal disputes and conflicts they may have with a coworker or supervisor, and helping staff who have encountered an administrative roadblock understand university policies, practices and procedures,” Kuchta-Miller said. “Often, these categories overlap with one another.”

Kuchta-Miller works with people both one-on-one and in groups and offers services including conflict coaching, mediation, group facilitation and workshops intended to build conflict competence.

“My position as an ombudsperson is unique,” Kuchta-Miller said. “I have no authority to make or overturn decisions. Instead, my office provides an alternative, informal process that complements existing services on campus. My hope is that as staff members learn more about my role…they will feel safe coming to me to share their concerns, knowing that what they say will be held in confidence.”

Though Kuchta-Miller’s position is new, the Office of the Ombuds for students and for faculty is longstanding at Washington University. Linda Nicholson serves as the ombuds for faculty members on the Danforth campus, and Elzbieta Sklodowska, a Randolph family professor of Spanish, serves as the ombudsperson for students. Appointed by Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences Jennifer Smith in July 2012, Sklodowska’s focus is on mediation and reconciliation.

“My role is to provide informal confidential assistance to undergraduate and graduate students in Arts & Sciences to voice concerns, develop options, and resolve conflict they might have encountered in their interactions with faculty, staff, or other students,” Sklodowska said.

As an ombudsperson for students, Sklodowska sees on average 10 or so inquiries each year, about half of which become formal cases. A vast majority of the cases Sklodowska has seen through her tenure as ombudsperson have involved students expressing perceived injustice in grading or communication issues with faculty. Considerably fewer cases have involved student-to-staff issues and not a single case of student-to-student problems has come to Sklodowska’s attention.

Although the role of ombudsperson for students has existed for some time at Washington University, a recent increase in transparency throughout Washington University’s expansive support systems has elicited a change in the types of cases brought to Sklodowska’s office.

“I would say that in the first year when I handled the most cases, and fewer inquiries…the focus was definitely on grading or unfair evaluation,” Sklodowska said. “That type of concern has decreased considerably.”

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Alex SiegmanComment