University programs settle disputes, make resolution on campus

The University Mediation Program helps students agree to mediation, and staff to reconcile

· February 7, 2013, 12:00 am

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While controversy can be prevalent on campus — from questions of diversity to off-campus living conditions — Penn offers numerous resources to resolve such disputes.

Recent disputes on campus such as six students’ lawsuit against the University over their off-campus house and six Africana studies professors’ claim that the University does not do enough to promote diversity in the administration prompted the Daily Pennsylvanian to look into routes to resolving issues on campus.

University offices such as the Office of the Ombudsman and the Office of Student Conduct serve as forums to resolve disagreements between parties. However, these aren’t the only organizations that serve to mediate disputes. Groups like Penn Political Coalition and the Department of Human Resources also serve to regulate the discussions on campus.

The mediation process

Students involved in disputes could often find themselves going through the process of mediation with the either the OSC or the Ombudsman.

According to the Charter of the University of Pennsylvania Student Disciplinary System, most matters “can and should” be resolved through the University Mediation Program.

“Often, a student will bring a complaint to the office first, not necessarily as a mediation complaint … [but because] they are upset about their circumstances,” said Marcia Glickman, associate director and mediation coordinator at the OSC.

The complaints are then “evaluated on a case-by-case basis” to determine whether they should be referred to mediation, she added. However, no cases of alleged academic dishonesty will be referred to mediation.

“Our aim is to get people involved in a dispute to sit down together and make it okay and safe for them to do that,” Director of the OSC Michele Goldfarb said.

While OSC emphasizes face-to-face mediation, the Ombudsman’s office — which serves students, faculty, staff, parents and alumni and receives cases ranging from disputes between staff and their supervisors to those between researchers and assistants — utilizes “shuttle diplomacy,” according to Associate Ombudsman Marcia Martinez-Helfman. Shuttle diplomacy allows parties to communicate through the Ombudsman without speaking directly to each other.

The Ombudsman is in a unique position as it is independent from other departments at Penn, which allows it to remain neutral in any disputes.

“As a neutral [party], I try to hear the different perspectives to bring the parties together and get beyond the dispute and find common interests,” Martinez-Helfman said.

Both offices, however, keep their records confidential.Goldfarb said that confidentiality is one of the differences between mediation at Penn and proceedings in the court system, as the courts are public

The Ombudsman and the OSC have similar philosophies for finding resolutions.

Glickman stressed that “[OSC] does not come up with the resolution.”
“The resolution hinges on all parties having an interest in a particular outcome,” Martinez-Helfman said.

Student to student

Student groups in disputes can turn to their peers and other groups to help settle the conflict.

Some student groups, such as PoCo, believe that all disagreements don’t necessarily need to be resolved. Rather, the opposing parties should be allowed to publicly express their opposing views.

“We see political controversy … and member groups expressing their views as a good thing,” College junior and PoCo Co-Chair Sam Gersten said.

“We’re focused on bringing out these different sides to stories,” College and Wharton junior and PoCo Co-chair Urja Mittal added. “We want people to explore the different sides of issues … [and] convert disputes that could arise into more meaningful conversation.”

Mittal said that PoCo would mediate disputes between their member groups if asked, but that normally the groups would resolve these issues on their own.

The Student Activities Council will also resolve disputes between groups on campus, should they arise.

“Resolving disputes between groups is a role of SAC Exec if disputes should occur and the situation necessitates our mediation,” College junior and SAC Chair Jen Chaquette said in an email. “All such proceedings would be done in close consultation with the Office of Student Affairs.”

However, she noted that “student group disputes tend to arise very infrequently and Penn students on the whole are very mature and are good at working things out.”

One Penn freshman who wished to remain anonymous due to the nature of the dispute decided to take matters into her own hands when she had a problem with a member of a Penn department.

After speaking to her advisor, she decided to contact the heads of the department to speak to them. After listening to what she had to say, they fixed the problem.

She found that although the department heads weren’t always made aware of problems, “they were receptive when spoken to.”

Staff resolutions
The Human Resources Department offers additional resources just for Penn staff members.

Employees with any problems can consult with HR staff to discuss their issue. HR will then work with the employees to set their resolution goals and discuss the options employees have available to them.

Some of the informal options include consultations with supervisors or the opposing party, meetings facilitated by University Resource Office professionals or mediation with staff mediators. The last option will only occur if all parties agree.

A more formal option for staff is the Staff Grievance Program, under which a panel of volunteer staff members reviews the grievance and makes recommendations on how to resolve the issue.
Executive Director of Staff and Labor Relations at the Human Resources Department Sharon Moorer Aylor said in an email that staff should be vocal about workplace issues.

“The sooner [staff members] raise their concerns, the easier it is to resolve the issue and create a more positive and productive work environment,” she added.

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