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Monday, March 4, 2024

After SHCS furloughs, counselors voice yearslong frustrations with university leadership

Six SHCS counselors say they feel devalued, voice frustrations with management

This article fits into the context of a previous article by The California Aggie titled “UC Davis Counseling Services staff at odds with SHCS leadership over summer furloughs.” All six counselors who agreed to an interview spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to protect themselves — and their jobs — from any type of retaliation. They are referred to as Counselors A, B, C, D, E and F. 

Six UC Davis counselors who recently spoke to The California Aggie emphasized frustrations over a curious duality when it comes to the services they provide. On one hand, university leaders, including the chancellor, have encouraged students to take advantage of UC Davis’ mental health resources during this difficult time. At the same time, however, nine counselors have been made to take mandatory furloughs, despite the fact that Counseling Services was staffed at 75% capacity even before the pandemic.

“I think it’s misleading to the students — their actions are contradicting what they’re saying,” Counselor B said. “Counseling Services has already been understaffed, and we have been really grinding this year. We’ve been very overwhelmed. A lot of students reach out to Counseling Services and want to initiate mental health treatment, which is wonderful. But on the other hand, […] support to students is not then being backed up by financial sources. So it’s just mixed messages.”

The counselors who spoke to The Aggie, some of whom are being furloughed, said UC Davis is effectively cutting back on its scope of mental health resources during a pandemic and a time of national and global crisis. They feel that this will ultimately make it more difficult for students to access the care they pay for through student fees when they need these services the most.

Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS) leadership, however, disagrees.

“We are continuing to provide our full range of services,” said Counseling Director Paul Kim. “We moved very quickly to make sure our students were able to access mental health services, especially during this pandemic.”

UC Davis and SHCS leadership told The Aggie that mental health resources have been expanded upon during the pandemic (counselors deny this); that the furloughs are a regular and yearly occurrence (counselors deny this); that they have gone out of their way to be fully transparent about the budget (counselors disagree); that the furloughs are not a result of budgetary directives given by Student Affairs (counselors say they were told otherwise) and that the furloughs are not COVID-19-related (counselors say they “obviously” are).

These furloughs, and the disagreements over the reason for and consequences of them, are just one of numerous examples of a perceived lack of clarity and transparency on the part of management, specifically in regards to the budget, that is and has been felt by some members of UC Davis’ counseling staff for years.

After acknowledging that SHCS management cannot predict the future and are dealing with many uncertainties, Counselor B said if the furlough situation had been approached differently, with proactive clarity and transparency on the part of management, “we could have avoided a lot of this mistrust and feeling like our jobs are not secure at this point.”

Furloughing essential workers — “a slap in the face”

As defined by UC Davis, healthcare workers — including mental health workers — are essential. That means that even after Yolo County had implemented its shelter-in-place order on March 18, counselors continued to come into work and have in-person sessions.

Margaret Walter, UC Davis’ executive director of Health and Wellness, explained that in-person appointments continued while SHCS worked on launching telehealth services for students. Counselor B said some counselors raised concerns about continuing in-person services, “and we were reassured, ‘You’re essential staff, so [you] have to be here.’ And that was kind of the extent of it.”

Counselor B acknowledged that management was working hard behind the scenes to get telehealth services up and running so that counselors could provide mental health care through secure video calls.

“I’m really proud of how we responded,” Counselor F said. “We had to transform our entire model of service delivery in a shockingly short amount of time. And that involved tremendous planning on behalf of counseling, leadership and management and staff.”

Other counselors, as well as both Walter and Kim, emphasized how proud they were of the fact that it took only two weeks to launch telehealth services.

“Everybody jumped on that,” Walter said. “I am thrilled how quickly that worked.”

Counselor F said that counselors “didn’t miss a beat in terms of being able to deliver these services to students,” so then to be furloughed “was just a slap in the face.”

     “That’s the contradiction: ‘You guys are so essential. You have to continue your services while the tele-mental health aspect is being figured out,’ and then, a few weeks after that, the furloughs happened,” Counselor B said. “The message to both employees and to students is mental health is going to be the first thing to be cut, which is really frustrating. It’s very frustrating.”

A disagreement over priorities

SHCS is still moving forward with plans to hire an additional 2.6 full-time equivalent (FTE) psychologists to supervise pre-doctoral interns and post-doctoral residents in the Counseling Services Training Program. According to Dr. Cory Vu, the associate vice chancellor for Health, Wellness and Divisional Resources, these positions are currently under review by UC Davis’ recently convened Vacancy Management Program, which assesses the necessity of creating, replacing or backfilling positions.

Some counselors disagree with plans to move forward in filling those positions, given the current situation in SHCS.

“While it is invaluable to provide training, […] we need permanent senior staff,” Counselor E said. “Students need to be able to connect with a counselor when they first come in to UC Davis if that’s needed and, if they’re struggling, be able to reach out to that same person and have continuity of care.”

Counselors also pointed out the fact that the Community Advising Network (CAN) counselor position for the international student community and the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian (MENASA) student community have remained unfilled for over 18 months. During this same period of time, three management positions were filled, Kim said.

“We wanted to ensure that we could post those positions both for masters clinicians and psychologists, and to be able to do that, there were some processes we had to go through, some that took time for us to figure out,” Kim explained. “The UCPath transition was also a part of the equation. Really, we have a value and strong belief that we get the best qualified counselors.”

Additionally, Walter said technical issues resulting from union negotiations led to changes in title codes that then halted the recruitment process system-wide.

“It does take time to hire the best possible person,” Counselor E said. “It takes even longer when the position is not posted in order to recruit a pool of candidates. This position has been open for more than a year now, and I find it unacceptable that title codes cannot be established within a 14-month period of time. What is the plan then to establish these codes? Who is working on this? These are questions that remain unanswered.”

International student Xiaotong Wang, a fourth-year statistics and economics double major, said she was aware that students paid for these CAN positions and was “upset” to learn that “we did not have what we should have.”

Qiuying Lin, a third-year mathematical analytics and operations research and managerial economics double major, is also an international student. She said she was also not aware of the CAN position for international students, and said she would take advantage of this service if it was made available to her.

“International students have different problems from local students, and we need advice to get accustomed to [our] new life in America,” Lin said. “[A] specific counselor may help us to build more confidence in our college life. And I know some students left UC Davis or can’t concentrate on academics because of mental health problems.”

Ultimately, some counselors feel that there are differences in the priorities of counseling staff versus those of management. Counselor B said the furloughs send a message that “supportive services for students are going to be hit first, given the financial difficulties the university faces.” 

“It highlights the value of generating income, which is important, but in times of literally national emergency, when that’s going to be prioritized over people’s well-being, [that] is a little concerning,” Counselor B said.

There may even be differences in the priorities of management versus those of students. Fifth-year history and English double major Katrina Manrique, a former co-director of the Mental Health Initiative, pointed out that in 2018–19, students paid for the majority of the university’s athletic budget — around $23.5 million — and said there “needs to be a re-assessment over where the university is choosing to place its priorities.”

“Imagine if a portion of this funding could go towards improving student services meant to support and retain students, like Counseling Services?” Manrique said via virtual communication. “I want to see them be more intentional in what they are choosing to fund and what they are choosing to cut especially when it’s services that rely on student fees. How well do those budgetary decisions actually align with what students are asking for? At the end of the day these are student-paid fees and its usage should align with what students are, and have been, asking for.”

“It feels like we are disposable.”

In addition to expressing a sense of not being on the same page as management, all six counselors expressed a sense of feeling devalued by the university. 

“On the face of things, [university leaders] constantly try to validate — in every email, when there’s a crisis, it always says, ‘Please seek counseling,’” Counselor C said. “That’s all nice and fine, but it’s how they actually do their actions and their advocacy which speaks louder to me. It feels like we are disposable.”

There was a feeling voiced by some of the counselors that if the managers or university leaders could only see the types of cases counselors handle, they would recognize their contributions to the university.

Walter, Kim, Vu and Interim Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Emily Galindo all voiced their continued support of counseling staff. Galindo said she welcomes “any and all opportunities for folks to share what it is that they feel like that we could do to make them feel more supported and more valued.”

In discussions over the current state of Counseling Services, Walter, Kim, Vu and Galindo all said that since the start of the pandemic, the utilization of counseling services has actually gone down. This fact was also recognized by the counselors.

“Students are at home, they’re in a comfortable place, they’re not experiencing the same kind of loneliness that we will see when students are on campus,” Galindo said. “Not to say that there aren’t still the need for the services, because there certainly is.”

Yet, counselors say some of their students are returning to unsafe, dysfunctional or abusive homes. Although there has been a decrease in the amount of new students seeking care this quarter compared to previous years, Counselor E said they have “seen an increased acuity just over the course of the quarter,” and “for some students that were managing okay, [now] they’re doing worse and worse.”

“The university really doesn’t want to recognize [that] students are not coming into the university with just, ‘I’m living away from home for the first time, I don’t know what I want to study and I’m really stressed because of the quarter system,’” Counselor D said. “We have a growing population of people with neurodiversity that, because of great advocacy in the primary levels, are now making it to school, but we don’t really hold them in the way they need to be held. And they often have behavioral issues and pretty severe psychiatric problems. Their cases are complex.”

Both Counselor D and Counselor A noted that college counselors are specialized counselors who work in the ecological framework of the institution.

“My goal is to uphold the chancellor’s mission, which is to promote the opportunity and ability to not just get admitted, but to graduate,” Counselor D said. “We’re doing that and they don’t appreciate it. I just find it asinine, like, ‘Anybody could do your job.’ No, not everybody could do our job.”

Counselors say they remain in SHCS, despite their frustrations, because they are extremely passionate about serving students and appreciate the shared dedication among their colleagues to support students’ well-being.

“Within counseling services, I’ve never gotten the sense that people come into this job as a temporary position, usually it’s because folks are really excited to join the team and they want to work with this population and they plan for this to be a career position,” Counselor B said. “Given all that’s been going on, [I am] feeling very devalued within the UC system as a counselor. I feel that way. I feel very devalued.”

What counselors would like to see from management

In the interview with Kim and Walter, the significance of the fact that six different SHCS counselors spoke with The Aggie to express their frustrations over the furloughs, a felt lack of transparency and the overall current state of affairs was noted. In response, Kim and Walter said they are prepared to receive feedback and respond accordingly.

“Especially with everything else that’s going on in the world, our counselors are serving our community, but our counselors are part of our community,” Walter said. “On top of all of the change that we’ve had this term, to support students and each other as we grieve and protest as a community is significant.”

The COVID-19 pandemic represents a unique time for college counselors, as UC Davis counselors and students — like all other mental health workers and their patients — are living through the same traumatic experience.

“A student asked me, ‘Do you think we’re going to be okay? Do you think that we’ll be able to have classes?’ and my answer is, ‘I don’t know,’” Counselor A said. “‘And this is really difficult. And we’re in this together. And I’m just as scared as you are right now. And this is really a difficult time.’ And that’s all I could say.”

All six counselors said additional clarity, communication, transparency, flexibility, more frequent staff meetings and as much assurance from management at this uncertain time as possible would help. 

Other counselors want bigger commitments, like market-level salaries, from the university.

Finally, Counselor A said they just want the university “to do what they said they were always going to do, which is provide proper staffing.”

Written by: Hannah Holzer — campus@theaggie.org 


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