Article by Autumn Siebold

Whether the issue is being credited in a study or disagreeing over grade policies, Kyla Ross knows academic issues are best solved by people familiar with academia. That’s one of the reasons why she applied to be the assistant vice provost for Advocacy and Conflict Resolution.

“Since I’ve held faculty positions at multiple institutions and was previously a postdoctoral fellow and graduate student myself, I can approach each conflict I’m working through with empathy,” Ross said. “I find it motivating to not only help faculty, postdocs, and students with their current challenges, but also to equip them with helpful strategies for future conflicts they may experience. I welcome the opportunity to consult with them so that more in our community learn how to leverage the positives while limiting the negatives of conflict.”

Ross completed her Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University in 2006. Next, she served as a postdoctoral fellow in the National Institutes of Health-funded Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) Program. In 2008, Ross joined the faculty at Georgia State University, and then returned to Tech in 2016 as the director of graduate training in Biomedical Engineering.

“My diverse experiences have helped me gain perspective as an administrator, teacher, and coach," Ross said. "I've helped students and faculty navigate advisor/advisee relationships. And over time, I've developed an appreciation for the ways that people communicate. I wanted to teach others how to connect even in difficult situations, so when I saw this job ad, it felt like it was written for me.”

We asked Ross about how she helps students, postdocs, and faculty, and how people can work through conflict in their own lives. Here’s what she said.

Who do you work with on campus, and what are some of the most common inquiries you receive? 

I serve faculty, postdocs, and graduate and undergraduate students. When it comes to students, a lot of grievances that I receive are about course concerns like grading or class policies.

Common concerns reported by graduate students and postdocs include communication challenges with their advisors and disputes regarding authorship and publication. For example, graduate students and postdocs might need to clarify authorship order when working on a research project.

In addition, faculty often come to me requesting strategies for how to maintain positive work relationships with their advisees and colleagues.

What is the process for a student to submit an academic grievance?

Students may file an academic grievance through an online form. Once submitted, I investigate and seek resolution on the case. The first step is to get curious about the perspective of each individual involved and talk with them. I often also connect and consult with campus units, like the Office of Disability Services or the Dean of Students, to investigate further and to ensure that the solution adheres to campus policy.

Describe what your day-to-day job entails.   

Most of my days involve some combination of consulting, coaching, interviewing, and writing. Even if an individual doesn’t want to file a formal complaint, people can email me about any concerns. I host sessions on how people can navigate challenging conversations and manage conflict, as well as consultations to teach communication and conflict resolution skills. When people do choose to file a complaint, I’m available to investigate the concerns and mediate when needed.

What is the most satisfying part of your job? 

I like knowing that I can help the people who come to me. Sometimes, the conflicts I’m dealing with are quite challenging and individuals are entrenched in their own positions. When that happens, it’s very satisfying to detangle the problem and help everyone involved find closure.

What is the most challenging part of your job, and how do you deal with it? 

At times, it can be challenging for all parties to achieve closure. For example, we might have found a resolution that all have agreed to, and then one party shares information that changes the best way forward. To avoid getting frustrated myself, I try not to get attached to one party’s needs, so that it's easier to determine what will help everyone involved. I also remain focused on my own emotions, particularly when it's clear that others’ emotions are running strong. Even if the solution we come up with doesn’t totally solve things for all parties, I seek the best possible outcome for all involved.  

Can you provide a couple of strategies for handling conflict?

First, check out the resources we have to offer, which include workshops on active listening and effective communication. These can help you manage conflict if and when it arises. Students can reach out to me by email to ask about attending these workshops.

When it comes to working through conflicts, maintaining open communication with people goes a long way. It’s healthy to disagree but being mindful of how you’re coming across will help you to avoid confrontation. This mostly comes down to being self-aware. It's important to remember that the only person that you can control is you

If you're interested in exploring more about becoming self-aware and developing tools to effectively communicate when emotions may be running high, I recommend the book Crucial Conversations by Al Switzler, Joseph Grenny, and Ron McMillan.

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