The folks at the Equal Opportunity Office are university gatekeepers, but not the kind that keep people out. Their job is to make sure the gate stays wide open.
The office’s mission is to ensure the university’s compliance with a complex web of federal and state laws and UGA policies created to ensure that all members of the UGA community are treated fairly.
In the words of Director Steve Shi, “We make sure that the university stays on the right side of the law.”
Recently the office has expanded its role on campus. It is now also responsible for administering the university’s Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy and for overseeing the recently created ombudspersons program.
In addition to Shi, an experienced attorney and retired Marine Corps colonel, the office includes Associate Director Janyce Dawkins, who previously served as an assistant district attorney for Clarke and Oconee counties; Kim Smith, an administrative specialist; and Nancy Autry, an administrative associate.
Shi answers directly to UGA President Michael F. Adams. This helps to ensure not only that the president stays abreast of the important matters handled by the office but also that the office maintains the independence essential to maintaining its openness and integrity within the university community.
“Our philosophy here is that we’re striving to be as transparent and fair to all the different constituencies in the university community,” Shi said. “We are here to talk if anyone has a concern. Obviously the regular leadership chain is a very good resource if you’ve got a problem. But anyone is welcome to come and talk to us.”
In some ways the office is a safeguard against the frailties of human nature in that sometimes actions are taken that, while perhaps well intended, can have the unintended effect of actually creating or perpetuating bias, Shi said.
“For example, in hiring situations, we try to make sure that hiring units search for the best qualified person for the position, using a process that considers all relevant information about each candidate,” Shi said. “While it is understandable that a unit might initially prefer to hire the graduate assistant who has been there for two years and has finally earned a Ph.D., if they do not conduct an open search, they may actually miss another candidate who is really the best overall for the job.”
In other situations, such as when an employee feels discriminated against or harassed by a superior, the office investigates the matter in a thorough and even-handed fashion.
“When we investigate alleged violations of the NDAH, we use what’s called in business and legal worlds a ‘Chinese wall’ to help ensure we maintain an objective and fair perspective to all concerned,” Shi said. “It’s basically a virtual wall between Associate Director Dawkins who investigates the matter and me since I have to make the actual determination as to whether there has been a violation and if so, what is the appropriate corrective or disciplinary action. She interviews all the people involved and forwards that information, once she’s collected it all, to me so that I can give it a fresh look.
“We do that because it’s human nature that when you go out and speak to several people, that you may have an affinity for some people and maybe not for others,” he also said. “We use this process to prevent that affinity from affecting our decisions and thereby provide the objective and detached decision making that is required for the process to be as fair as possible to all concerned.”
The office also administers and helps with training for the ombudspersons program, an additional resource for faculty, staff and students who may have problems or concerns.
Each segment of the campus community (faculty, staff and students) has its own ombudsperson, who will work to informally identify the issues involved and find the resources at the university needed to address them, including those related to discrimination and harassment.
“One hallmark of the ombudspersons is that they be as independent as possible,” Shi said. “It’s part of a tool kit for anyone in the university community to help solve a problem.”
Another initiative of the EOO is to evaluate and improve, where necessary, the delivery of services to members of the university community who may have a disability.
In particular, Shi wants to develop appropriate policies and procedures for accommodating disabilities among the faculty and staff.
“We already have a very well-regarded program for students that’s known across the country for its quality,” he said. “But one of our goals is to put more resources in place for disabled faculty and staff members in the future.
“With continuing medical advancements and changes to the laws that are expanding protections for disabled persons, it’s likely we’ll see more people who are disabled joining the university community, and they deserve the very best we can offer,” he added.