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March 29, 2010

University intercessors examine issues through many lenses

Office is offering apprenticeships for those who want to get a feel for the position

Kathy Sweetland
Sweetland
Frederick Jefferson
Jefferson

They are sounding boards for faculty, staff, and students facing a spectrum of issues. They are mediators, helping people resolve their differences through an informal process. They are a knowledge base, willing and able to share information on a wide variety of resources available at the University.

These are just a few of the roles Kathy Sweetland and Frederick Jefferson play as the University’s intercessors.

Sweetland and Jefferson are looking for others who may want to “step up to the plate” and get a feel for intercessors’ work by participating in an apprenticeship.

“We’d like to develop a group of interested people who might consider moving into this line of work,” says Sweetland, who is the University’s full-time intercessor. “We will interview people who are interested. We will try to get a sense of what their interest is, what their skills are, and what their appetite is for this kind of work. It does take a special person to do this.”

Sweetland and Jefferson say candidates for the apprenticeship should possess a number of traits: strong listening and feedback skills, coaching abilities, as well as negotiation and mediation skills.

Founded in the early 1970s, the office works with students, staff, and faculty across the entire institution. Typically, intercessors assist with relationship problems among peers or with supervisors, harassment or discrimination concerns, diversity issues, and workplace accommodation needs.

The informal process starts with an intercessor gathering information from the person seeking help, with an emphasis on creating a safe, comfortable environment for that person, Sweetland says.

From there, “you direct the process,” says Jefferson, professor emeritus, who serves as intercessor on a part-time basis. “We try to share with you what we know about the culture and process of the organization. We’ll share options and alternatives with you, but you decide which of those you want to use and which direction you want to take things.”

The intercessors report to the provost, but they stress that they do not share any information about their cases with him. Instead, they keep the provost informed about trends they think may need to be addressed at the University level. The intercessors keep conversations confidential unless an individual discloses information that may put that individual or others at risk.

Jefferson says intercessors look at each issue through different “lenses.” The first lens is that of the person who seeks help from an intercessor.

“We’re particularly concerned about understanding what you’re bringing to the situation, caring for the state of being you’re finding yourself in,” he says.

The second lens is the environment in which the person works. The third lens is used to examine the institution as a whole to determine if there’s something about the organization that may contribute to the situation at hand.

Jefferson says learning is an important part of the process, for all parties involved.

“We’re looking for win-win learning opportunities wherein you, the individual, feel that your voice has been heard and you’re satisfied with whatever the outcome is,” he says. “So the informal process, because of it being informal and therefore open, makes it easier for us to learn together.

“I’d say that’s one of the fundamental principals that we operate under—how do we continue to grow the culture of learning here at the University so that it’s supportive of everyone.”

To learn more about the apprenticeship, contact Sweetland at 275-9125 or ksweet@admin.rochester.edu.

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