Wheaton goes to Washington
Wheaton goes to Washington
After nearly three decades on Berkeley campus, staff ombudsperson joins U.S. Justice Department
By D. Lyn Hunter,
By age 60, many people are planning their retirements. Not Ella Wheaton, Berkeley's staff ombudsperson.
After 29 years on campus, she's pulling up her roots, moving across country and starting a new job as ombudsperson for the U.S. Justice Department, starting in mid-June.
"This is such a total change, I feel like I'm going away to college," said an elated Wheaton. "But I love a challenge."
And a challenge is what Wheaton will find in Washington D.C., where she'll help the Justice Department's nearly 124,000 employees resolve conflicts.
"The ombuds position at the Department of Justice is the highest level anyone in this field can reach," said Chancellor Berdahl. "We will certainly miss Ella, but I'm not surprised by her appointment, given the success she has had at Berkeley."
When Wheaton first caught wind of the job opening, she passed the news along to colleagues around the country.
"I was looking forward to retirement from Berkeley and spending time with my grandkids. I certainly wasn't in the market for a new job," said Wheaton, a Stockton native. "I was shocked when the department mentioned my name as a possible candidate."
Conflicted about leaving her home, Wheaton conferred with her family and minister about what to do. Their advice: Apply for the job.
"I figured it was an honor to be recruited, and that's as far as it would go," said Wheaton. "I was floored when I got an interview and fell even flatter when I was offered the position."
That was back in January. But Wheaton wasn't sure she actually had the job until a few weeks ago, when the extensive security check required for government employees was completed.
"I had to track down neighbors from more than seven years ago, which wasn't easy," she said. "They also took my fingerprints, interviewed my family and asked me very specific details about my history."
As the Justice Department's first-ever ombudsperson, she must create the department virtually from scratch. Many federal agencies, she said, have begun implementing this kind of position to help avoid the costly litigation sometimes associated with conflict resolution.
"We try to help resolve issues before relationships begin to dissolve," said Wheaton. "Not only does this improve the work environment, but it's also a big money saver for organizations."
This week, Wheaton will meet her top boss, Janet Reno, and admits she's nervous about the encounter.
Wheaton is one in a long line of Berkeley employees who have taken government positions in Washington D.C. She follows, among others, Haas Business School Dean Laura Tyson, who served as President Clinton's chief economic adviser; Economics Professor Janet Yellen, who headed the Federal Reserve Board; Business Professor Michael Katz, who was chief economist for the Federal Communication Commission; and former Chancellor Michael Heyman, who headed the Smithsonian Institution.
"We are enormously proud of Ella Wheaton for being selected to this significant national post," said Vice Chancellor Horace Mitchell. "Her leadership on campus and within the organization of ombudspersons has clearly prepared her for this role."
Wheaton began her career at Berkeley in 1971, working as an administrative assistant in what was then the personnel office, now called human resources.
Over the years, she worked her way up through the ranks, from manager of the employee relations unit, then to the ombuds office. She has been sole director of that unit for the last five years. In the past she shared the directorship.
When she first came to the ombuds office, Wheaton said she had difficulty separating herself from the problems staff presented.
"I would toss and turn at night worrying about these conflicts, but soon realized I couldn't put myself in the middle of these things," said Wheaton. "My job is to help people help themselves. I'm paid to listen and offer options."
With all the conflicts she has heard over the years, some involving high-level personnel, Wheaton could tell some stories. But she won't be writing a "tell-all" book.
"I have a strong commitment to confidentiality," she said. "We must have this to preserve trust in the office."
Wheaton has improved many relationships on campus, she said, but has done it all behind the scenes.
"I've helped a lot of people become heroes and heroines, but my hand has not been seen, nor should it," Wheaton reflected. "Maintaining that anonymity is a great source of pride for me."
Wheaton's contributions to the campus have not gone unnoticed, however.
"I can't count the number of co-workers who have been helped by Ella's caring and objective counsel," said Margaret Baker, chairwoman of the Chancellor's Staff Advisory Committee, which helped establish the ombuds office in 1984. "We cherish the passion that Ella has brought to her work. She leaves a legacy that has made Berkeley a better place for us all."