Ron Anderson: Expanding UF ombuds program to include staff
It didn’t take Ron Anderson long after graduating from college to discover that the world of private industry might not be his oyster. After brief stints working for an insurance and annuities company as well as a jewelry manager, Anderson returned to his alma mater, UF, in 1994 as a financial aid officer. From there, he worked his way through the ranks, eventually serving as an associate director of Student Financial Affairs before making the jump from Criser to Tigert Hall to serve as the UF Ombuds.
This spring, the Office of the Ombuds, which has traditionally served UF students, will expand to provide services to staff in need of support. The establishment of staff ombuds services comes in response to feedback received via the Faculty and Staff Climate Survey conducted in the fall of 2015. It also is a natural progression following the creation of a faculty ombuds office just two years ago.
We sat down with Anderson to learn a bit more about the role of the UF Ombuds Office as well as his role in leading the efforts to expand its services.
You came to the ombuds role via the Office for Student Financial Affairs. How do you think your work there prepared you for assuming the role of UF’s ombuds?
Every day coming into work was like this awesome challenge. I really don’t think there’s any administrative area on campus that is as complicated in terms of what you have to know, remember, process, interpret and program for as the financial aid office. And I’m not taking that away from anything else on campus, but when it comes to administrative areas, Student Financial Affairs is the most complex. I liked the challenge, but more importantly, I saw that I was making a difference in the lives of students.
I could sit there and show someone all of the reasons why they couldn’t get financial aid due to state and federal laws or university policies. But the real trick is how can you figure out a way legally, and ethically to help that person. You go into any large bureaucratic agency, and they are quick to tell you why you can’t do something. But I had the approach of: “Why can’t we find a way to help this person?”
How did you come to transition from Student Financial Affairs to the ombuds area?
I was fortunate enough to have the ability while working for Student Financial Affairs to work with Student and Family Preview as well as many of the academic advisers on campus. I got to know a lot of people on campus in various departments and colleges. I was the guy that they would call to come out to the college to talk, go on the road with the Admissions office or the person the academic advisers would call for help. It gave me a pretty good sense of how UF worked from an academic and enrollment management standpoint.
When I heard that Tommy Howard, the previous ombuds, was getting ready to retire, I thought to myself, well it would be kind of cool to do that because it’s problem-solving like I do now with money, but it’s problem-solving with everything. I thought it was very intriguing.
However, the university did a nationwide search and I had no experience, so initially I didn’t apply for the job.
But when the individual they selected turned us down, the position remained vacant. The search was reopened but only internally to UF. So I said, “Well, I don’t know of another ombudsman at UF. I’m just as qualified as anyone else.”
What qualifies someone to be an ombuds?
At that time, I didn’t quite know. I guess the reason I decided to throw my hat in is that knowing the nature of the job that I had in the financial aid office, I had to talk to people sometimes when they were at their worst, most frustrated, most desperate, most emotionally charged moments. My role also involved reviewing appeals to the financial aid office, so I had an appellate background. I was able to interpret regulations, I was able to interpret policies and put those things into action.
You have to have this kind of soft touch in being able to work with people and be empathetic enough to explain things with the rationale to explain the reasons behind decisions. So I thought I had enough of those soft touch skills, coupled with analytical skills from doing the work that I would have to do anyway that could work in this position.
Why is it important for a university to have an ombuds office?
An ombuds office offers what the ombuds profession calls “the visitor” the opportunity to speak in private in a neutral, independent and impartial way to an agency that has no affiliation with whomever the issue is with. So I’m not attached to a unit on campus. It allows people to vet their concerns and questions in such a way that if they don’t want to do anything about it, they don’t have to.
There are limits obviously, when it comes to anything dealing with sexual harassment, if I think that you are a threat to yourself or anyone in the university community—things of that nature. But by and large, outside of that, whatever is spoken about here stays here. So I think that really affords the visitor the ability to speak freely and to be able to work through things before acting upon them.
A lot of it is listening. That’s a big part of the role. And kind of turning it back on them and saying, “What are your options? What do you plan to do?” It causes them to have to think and examine what their options are. And then when they bring up what their options are, you start going through them with them. And it’s this process of self-discovery that allows the visitor to come to a conclusion that they are comfortable with because they largely thought of it themselves. I’m helping lead them to that.
How will this office support staff now that it’s expanding its services?
I think sometimes—and this is absolutely not a criticism of HR—but sometimes an employee would go to HR and say, “So-and-so is doing such-and-such, and that’s not fair.” And HR looks at it and says, “Well, there’s nothing wrong here. You may not like it, but there’s nothing wrong with it.” So that person may feel like their voice is not being heard and they’re not doing anything about it.
Now, if that person comes to me, I would be able to tell them whether or not their issue would have any traction—or if it’s something to really talk about—so they won’t have this level of anticipation that is never fulfilled. I think it serves as a way to go through these scenarios and processes and allow people to better understand the way to handle a situation or how to speak with someone or deal with a concern or a situation in an impartial way. I don’t have a vested interest in the outcome of the case. My concern—as I tell students—is that you are afforded a fair process.
It also will allow information about trends to be provided to HR or the Provost’s Office. While a person may not be comfortable with their information going forward because of concerns about repercussions, or they’re not comfortable because they don’t really think anyone is going to do anything about it, I can now be that mouthpiece to the administration.
Has your work on the President’s Council on Diversity and the Climate Initiative Work Group affected your commitment to this new role?
Yes, I’d say I’m really driven by a sense of fairness or equality. I do not like when things are not equal. I’m passionate about wanting to make sure people are treated correctly—whether that’s a student or whether that’s a staff member. And being on the Council on Diversity affords me another way of ensuring, for lack of a better word, fairness and equality. Promoting diversity creates more fairness in our society, or at least on campus. And I’m proud to be a part of these efforts.