Published: Nov. 29, 2017

Two women speaking one-on-oneDo you find yourself saying…

  • Can my advisor do that?
  • How do I talk to…?
  • My department is a war zone!
  • Isn’t there a rule about that?
  • What are my options?

If you are having trouble navigating the dynamics of a busy lab, departmental politics or conflict with your advisor/committee, two resources are available at CU Boulder free of charge: Faculty Relations and the Ombuds Office.

Faculty Relations and the Ombuds Office strive to foster a positive and productive working environment by addressing issues of conduct, conflict and climate. They help further the University’s commitment to the principles of equality and opportunity.

Faculty Relations is under the umbrella of the vice provost and associate vice chancellor for Faculty Affairs. It offers graduate students on appointment: confidentiality, an objective perspective on a problem, and advice when having a conflict with a faculty member.

“When a student comes to me, I try to discern what has actually happened,” said Suzanne Soled, Faculty Affairs director. “By the time they come to me, it’s usually a situation that has a pattern of conflict. It’s not a single instance, and the student feels like they don’t know what to do.”

Soled gave an example of a common cultural misunderstanding:

A graduate student on appointment worked in a lab where he felt like he was being verbally attacked by an abrasive faculty member critiquing his work. The student thought the faculty member was purposely embarrassing him in front of the entire lab group. The student came to the office seeking help for what he felt had become an intimidating and hostile work environment. 

What Soled learned was that the student came from a culture where feedback was given indirectly, subtly, diplomatically, and in a soft voice, while the faculty member was from a culture where feedback is provided in a more direct, frank, and honest way without being softened.

“It’s always better to address a conflict earlier than later,” Soled said. “Later usually means more of a pattern has developed, and it’s harder to get out of that rut. One of the resources we offer is a way for the student to have a conversation with a faculty member that feels less threatening for both student and faculty member. We try to help them reach a better understanding that will strengthen the relationship.”

If, however, the faculty member is engaging in unprofessional conduct -- which can range from intimidation or a lack of collegiality or civility, to activities such as misappropriating research funds or research misconduct -- those are policy violations and Faculty Relations can coach a graduate student on the processes which may lead to sanctioning the faculty member.

“Faculty members can wield enormous power over a graduate student’s future career direction, and students fear retaliation,” she said. “I’d like to get the word out to graduate students on appointment and let them know they can come get confidential informal advice, coaching and mediation.”

The Ombuds Office reports to the Provost, Chancellor and Senior Vice Chancellor, and serves as a good place to surface, voice, discuss and clarify university-related concerns. They listen without judgment, help people untangle issues, develop options and strategize. They provide an impartial perspective and maintain what is shared with them in strictest confidence. In addition, the Ombuds are not agents of the university, nor are they mandated reporters regarding protected class violations.

Kirsi Aulin, Ombuds Director, said graduate students seek help most often when they’re having a conflict with their advisors. However, you can discuss any university related concern with the Ombuds Office, including: departmental climate, Honor Code concerns, grade disputes, lab group/team conflicts, discrimination, harassment, colleague conflicts and authorship, thesis or dissertation disputes.

“In many of these conflicts, graduate students feel extremely vulnerable,” Aulin said. “Graduate students need their advisor and department to help them complete the degree as well as navigate the employment world. Conflict in these relationships can be extremely distressing.”

For example:

A graduate student is close to filing, and submits what they think is nearly a final draft to their advisor. Contrary to all previous feedback on chapters, their advisor says the work is incomplete and wants the student to complete additional study that would take an additional 6-10 months. The graduate student is bewildered, and because they are at the end of their funding and need a good recommendation letter from their advisor, they are in a quandary about what to do.

The Ombuds helped this graduate student explore a number of options to address the problem, including: coaching on effective communication strategies, working with other committee members to see if they can sway the advisor, offering to contact the advisor to discuss the situation, offering to contact the department chair to discuss the situation, offering to contact the dean to discuss the situation. The Ombuds also discussed potential risks and outcomes of these various strategies. Ultimately the graduate student chose which option fit best for them.

The Ombuds Office is not prescriptive, and visitors to the Ombuds Office choose their own path of resolution.

Aulin and Soled work together to conduct educational activities, such as a two-day course called Crucial Conversations on how to hold difficult conversations when there are different opinions and strong emotions.

By making Faculty Relations and the Ombuds Office available to graduate students, CU Boulder is investing in the success and well-being of graduate students.