Slice of Life

Neal Powless continues fight against discrimination on campus as Ombudsman

Laura Oliverio | Senior Staff Photographer

As an Ombudsman, Neal Powless uses conflict resolution to solve problems and educate faculty.

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The Office of the University Ombuds released its annual report for 2020-21 earlier this week, which detailed trends of racial, disability and gender bias on Syracuse University’s campus last year.

Since the office released its inaugural report earlier this year, Neal Powless, the university ombuds, has been working to address its concerns regarding racism, sexism and retaliation. In light of the latest report, Powless spoke to The Daily Orange about what he has done since last year’s report to address those concerns.

The ombuds recalled not feeling surprised with the data results of the first report. The #NotAgainSU protests happened during the tracking period of the first report, and Powless believes that what many of the SU community members saw during the 2019-20 school year he was already aware of.

“I can’t say that I was totally surprised by it,” Powless said. “#NotAgainSU started, and then this data ends right after that. So they’re basically seeing a lot of the same stuff that I was seeing.”

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Of the 255 cases his office worked on from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020, 39% were brought by SU staff, 27% by faculty, 25% by graduate students and 9% by “other.” The cases mostly pertained to concerns about the workplace, university policies and discrimination.

While Powless does not have authority to take formal action in response to the complaints that make up the data in the report, as ombuds, he can clarify university policies and help staff, faculty and students find other ways to solve their conflicts.

Nonetheless, Powless has attended events and sought to bring more training events to campus to address bullying. He was invited to an anti-bullying presentation, which was organized by a college within SU and was led by an ombuds from Virginia Tech.

“It’s hard to adjudicate bullying, because it’s subjective,” Powless said. “One person’s definition of bullying is not the same as another person’s definition of bullying, so there has to be a real effort to create a bullying policy.”

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Before Powless became ombuds, he was supervised by James Duah-Agyeman in the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Powless’ personality benefits his role as an independent party when it comes to conflict resolution between SU and its students and faculty, Duah-Agyeman said.

“Now that he’s an Ombudsman, it just falls right in line with his own profession trajectory,” Duah-Agyeman said. “He listens to you. He makes you feel like you matter and that your ideas matter. You’re not just someone that’s sitting in front of him.”

In 2014, Powless supervised adviser Tess Barrett, an academic adviser in the Newhouse School of Public Communications. Powless worked with Barrett on topics of mental health counseling and continues to help her professionally. He taught her how to develop counseling skills, such as communication, building trust and giving resources to students, Barrett said.

Powless doesn’t judge when he is working with others, and through his training, Barrett learned how to take a more nuanced approach when listening to others in the workplace, she said.

“He listens. He looks for the root of the problem rather than taking a side,” Barrett said. “He’s always taught me to listen to both sides, because both are right, both are wrong. Figuring out the story and the narrative and helping mend the miscommunication.”

Even though Powless cannot take direct action to change immediate change on campus in his role as ombuds, he is noticing that there is more work taking place on campus to address diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.

“There’s diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility conversations. It’s happening all over the place,” Powless said. “I think it’s becoming more part of what people verbalize and what they expect.”







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