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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

After controversial termination of counseling director last year, hiring process underway

Two remaining candidates: one currently holds interim position, other chief of mental health at CA State Prison, Sacramento

Following the controversial termination of UC Davis’ former Counseling Services Director, a group of staff and students comprising the official Recruitment Advisory Committee (RAC) has been actively involved in a months-long hiring process to fill the position.

Two applicants remain: Dr. Paul Kim, who currently serves in the role of interim counseling services director and has served as director of multicultural services for UC Davis’ Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS), and Dr. Ruben Valencia, who is the current chief of mental health at California State Prison, Sacramento, the largest mental health program in the state of California with 200 mental health staff. Valencia is also a former UC Davis counselor and clinical director of the academic and staff assistance program.

Last academic year, counseling services worked with over 5,100 unique students — the first time the university broke the 5,000 mark in an academic year, according to Kim.

“Increase in utilization is absolutely due to more demand and more acuity,” he said. “[It] may also be due to the work we do around stigma reduction and having multiple entry points.”

At CSP Sacramento, there are over 15,000 mental health appointments every month, according to Valencia. He said his primary concerns lie both with quantity and quality — ensuring demand is met and the care provided is the best it can be.

In their respective public forums open to community members, both Kim and Valencia spoke about the necessity of improving student knowledge of existing resources, supporting staff, maximizing resources before asking for additional support and increasing involvement with students.

Sarah Hahn’s termination

Last year, the university’s termination of former Counseling Services Director Sarah Hahn drew campuswide attention. Hahn maintains that her termination was retaliation for concerns she had raised about whether UC Davis had appropriately allocated student fees meant specifically for the hiring of an additional 12 counselors.

The planned hiring efforts were part of an ongoing systemwide mental health initiative which would bring the university in line with nationally recommended staff-to-student ratios. An investigation published in The California Aggie last year revealed a portion of these funds had been misallocated.

During his public forum, Kim said that in addition to hiring a new clinical director, a sports psychologist and a postdoc, the university is currently in the process of filling three new counselor positions. The hires will be on a 10-month, furloughed basis, but the positions are permanent.

“It’s important we get fully staffed,” Kim said.

As part of her official settlement agreement with the university, Hahn agreed to resign from her position in exchange for a severance pay of $12,394.83, according to an official copy of the agreement obtained by The California Aggie via a California Public Records Act request.

Following her termination, the Facebook page “Defend Student Allies: Save Sarah Hahn” received support from over 600 students.

According to fourth-year neurobiology, physiology and behavior major Shradha Shah, a current co-chair of the Student Mental Health Coalition and one of three student members on the RAC, the backlash resulting from Hahn’s termination provided an incentive for SHCS “to be more transparent in this process and to increase student involvement.”

“The three of us had an equal voice and vote as the other members of RAC who were faculty/staff, and we could freely share our experiences through the process as long as we up-kept candidate privacy,” Shah said via email. “I do believe this increase of involvement and transparency was due to the uproar of Sara Hahn’s upsetting termination, and I hope in the future this effort will be continually made by administration.”

Hiring Process

During the hiring process, which has taken several months, members of the RAC narrowed down the pool of candidates to just a handful of individuals who were then interviewed, Shah said.

The RAC is composed of individuals representing various groups on campus, including the “Counseling Center, Student Health, Student Mental Health Coalition, Student Disability Center, Student Support and Judicial Affairs, Office of Educational Opportunity and Enrichment Services and the Community Resource and Retention Center,” according to Jennifer Billeci, the director of the Student Disability Center.
After narrowing down the pool of applicants, and after one applicant dropped out, only Kim and Valencia remained. The RAC asked both questions about accessibility, budget allocation and representing marginalized communities, Shah explained.

Both Kim and Valencia had their own, separate public forums on Jan. 17 and Jan. 22, respectively. An hour-and-a-half was also set aside for the applicants to meet with students at a student luncheon, and interview sessions were scheduled specifically for Kim and Valencia to meet with counseling services staff. Some of these staff members served on the RAC.

Billeci said the public forum was advertised via Student Affairs and Undergraduate Education, and Shah said both she and another student member of the RAC used their Student Mental Health Coalition platform to “involve and educate as many students as possible” via the group’s monthly newsletter and talking about the hiring at meetings and through presentations.

Despite these efforts, few students were present at both Kim and Valencia’s public forums. The livestream of the forums was not made publicly available and was accessible only to those who explicitly requested access.

Improving access to services

At their respective public forums, both Valencia and Kim responded to the same presentation topic: what they would do to improve access — one of the most pressing issues for university counseling services — at every level, both by maximizing existing resources and advocating for additional resources.

Improving access to services is one of the most critical on campus issues identified by the chancellor’s Mental Health Task Force.

Following the publication of a multi-part Aggie investigation and a particularly contentious Mental Health Town Hall, May convened a special task force to assess mental health needs on campus. In its report sent to the chancellor, the task force — composed of administrators, faculty and students — recommended the university focus on improving access to services, increasing its suicide prevention efforts, improving transparency and expanding student involvement in mental health-related conversations

Notably, not a single UC Davis clinician sat on the task force. Furthermore, according to the official task force report’s summary of the individuals interviewed, it appears no input from UC Davis clinicians was taken into consideration.

During his presentation, Valencia said he has been following what’s been happening at UC Davis during his time at CSP Sacramento by reading The California Aggie reports, watching the Mental Health Town Hall live-stream and reading through the task force’s recommendations report, which he frequently referenced.

“Pro-tip for any people who might be wondering what to do as a good employee: if your boss’ boss’ boss ever convenes a task force and puts your primary stakeholders — the students — on it to come up with recommendations, you should probably pay attention,” Valencia said. “And you should probably try to implement those recommendations wherever you can.”

Shah, who sat on the task force, said the group found that “a large percentage of students did not have the basic understanding of where to access mental health care on campus.”

“To me, this is a failure on SHCS’ part,” she said via email. “Students should be educated from the moment they walk onto this campus where they can access help in times of distress, what services their tuition pays for, and how important their mental health is during their time here. [And] with such a diverse student population our staff should reflect this same diversity and have the proper skillset to serve the different marginalized, underserved, and underrepresented populations of our campus.”

Both Valencia and Kim say they are committed to improving the student population’s ability to navigate on campus resources more comfortably.
Currently, a singular, standardized guide with all of the mental health resources both on and off campus is in production, Kim said. Looking through all of the resources available to students, however, Valencia said he became overwhelmed.

Valencia also spoke about his personal passion for hiring a staff of culturally-diverse counselors. In his position at CSP Sacramento, he saw a critical need for more Spanish-speaking counselors, and the prison now has the most Spanish-speaking clinicians the prison has had in recent years. He also spoke about overseeing specialized services for marginalized groups like the prison’s transgender population.

During the question-and-answer portion of his forum, a member of the audience asked Valencia about his response to the insufficient number of community referrals available and the conception of “treat ‘em and street ‘em,” the idea that students have a limited number of counseling appointments.

“We need to stay true to our mission,” he said, adding counseling services does not have the ability to influence what happens in the community. “[We] must put boundaries on what we can do.”

And Kim, at his forum, when asked about what he feels is the campus’ responsibility to provide care to students with the most intensive needs, said it is “to help a student get the appropriate care for whatever they’re presenting you with.”

“I don’t think that means that you’re always in a position to provide that care,” he said. “If someone would benefit from ongoing therapy […] unfortunately given the resources that we have, that’s not something we can do. That being said, I do think we have a responsibility to those students. And that’s when we’d use the full range of what we have to offer.”

Final decision

A final decision about the position will be made by the hiring managers who will take input from the UC Davis community, students, counseling services and the RAC into consideration.

“Next steps for the RAC include collecting and organizing community comment and feedback, conducting a final RAC meeting to discuss our impressions of each candidate, and forwarding our recommendations to hiring manager,” Billeci said via email. “Once we turn over our findings to the hiring manager(s), the process usually takes just a few more weeks.”

When a final decision is made, Shah hopes the new counseling services director stands by students to advocate for their needs while also taking full advantage of existing resources.

“There are so many missed opportunities to outreach to students and create more accessibility, from working closer with community providers, to creating peer counseling programs, or simply even educating students at freshmen orientation,” she said. “I’m looking for a new counseling director who will take the initiative to create accessibility in as many places and ways as possible.”

Written by: Hannah Holzer — campus@theaggie.org


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