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Susan Neff, 2013 Pete Small Award Recipient
Nominated by University of Victoria’s ombuds, Martine Conway, Susan Neff was 2013’s Pete Small Award Recipient. This prestigious honor is awarded to the “Ombudsperson of the Year” for work within Cal Caucus and honors their contributions in advancing the field of ombudsing.
Below is Martine’s praise of Susan Neff for her outstanding contributions to Cal Caucus.
Susan often refers to “leadership the ombuds way”, an approach characterized by listening, questioning, reflection and inclusion. Susan seeks the quality in others, encourages it to develop and to be shared. The truth is that Susan embodies the very concept of leadership “the ombuds way”.
Susan is a regular and long-time valued contributor to the Caucus. She has served on conference planning committees since 2004; provided administrative support to the Journal for many years while it was produced at the University of Washington; and in 2006, Susan took on the responsibilities of chair of the Cal Caucus Awards committee.
Susan has published in the Cal Caucus Journal; presented sessions at several Cal Caucus conferences; and delivered the Cal Caucus pre-conference workshop on multiple occasions, with different co-presenters, inviting new and not so new ombuds to reflect on what it means to take on the mantel of ombuds: What values do we serve? What promises do we make and how do we keep them? How does our practice stand up to the distinct purpose of the ombuds institution?
The reflective questions Susan asks of others are the same that guide her practice. Susan has served the University of Washington community since 1991, first as assistant ombudsman, and from 2008 as ombudsman. In doing so she has acted as a bridge between students, staff, faculty and administrators, responding to the needs of three different campuses. Working with individuals, engaging with decision-makers, or serving on committees, her focus has been on building capacity among the university community to engage constructively through conflict, as Susan describes it, “upholding institutional values one conversation at a time.”
As she leaves the role, Susan has also guided a successful transition at UW, where the ombuds position had previously always been held by tenured faculty. Susan’s consistent focus on educating her campus, its constituent groups and its decision-makers about the ombuds role is reflected in the revised executive order for the position (2013), which modifies the charter for the office while affirming the strong vision set at its inception, in 1968-69, for the “protection of the rights and interests of individual members of the student body, the faculty and the staff”. The ombuds office at UW in 2013 is set up as “a safe environment to voice questions and concerns, and have constructive alternatives by which to assert [one’s] rights and interests and seek resolution of problems and conflicts”. It is there to “improve the fairness and effectiveness of the University's systems and operations.”
Susan’s influence extends beyond the UW and Cal Caucus communities, across ombuds sectors and geographical borders. After participating in the informal North-West Ombuds group since its creation in 2001, Susan became its convener circa 2005 and the facilitator of its steering committee in 2009. She still provides leadership to this unique network of ombuds, from Canadian and US offices in the North-West, who meet regularly in both countries to share best practices across all sectors of practice: legislative, public, private, academic, health care and non-profit.
Susan has constantly nurtured ties among US and Canadian ombuds, among ombuds from diverse sectors, and between ombuds and non ombuds, encouraging us all to “learn with and from each other”. She has participated in several regional ombuds meetings with the Association of Canadian College and University Ombudspersons (ACCUO), and co-led sessions focused on ombuds leadership at a regional conference in Victoria, Canada, and at Cal Caucus, in 2005, and at the inaugural conference of the International Ombudsman Organization in La Jolla, California, in 2006. She has also led the North-West ombuds group to present panel discussions at the Dispute Resolution conference in Seattle, and at the joint ACCUO-FCO (Forum of Canadian Ombudsman) in Vancouver in 2011.
If Susan’s contributions often include others, it is not by accident but by design. Susan’s leadership style is that of the caring shepherd, gathering, encouraging and guiding others. Often a spontaneous summarizer and reframer during discussion periods, she challenges us to connect concepts with practice and with reflection. A tireless advocate for ombuds and for dialogue among ombuds, Susan has inspired and guided many ombuds and non ombuds, mentoring those entering the position, and encouraging and challenging those writing about the role, always generously sharing her knowledge, experience and extensive network.
Susan says that “when an organization is really open to learn through reflection, there’s always room for an ombuds.” She also reminds us that, by having an ombuds, and organization makes an “inherent promise” to live up to its stated values. As an ombuds, Susan also considers herself a “steward of the ombuds institution”, encouraging us individually and as a group to reflect on the values we stand for as ombuds, and the promise we make when we become a part of the large and varied ombuds family.