A Whole Can of Worms

By: Kelsi Swenson


The town hall was when most people found out. There had been a lot of rumors (some, as the Provost put at the SGA meeting on February 14th: “right impressions, but a lot of the time wrong impressions.”) but this was the first time the UB community heard definitively that the Counseling Center was closing. It’s unknown whether this change will be permanent, but for the next six months (the length of the contract signed by UB with INOVA, who also manages the staff’s employee assistance program) it’s a reality.

For El Schoepf, it’s a triple adjustment: personal, professional, and academic. Ms. Schoepf was the clinical extern at the Center, which meant she saw patients on an ongoing basis and took part in educational workshops.  “I thought that I was going to have this year of clinical experience, two full semesters and I have one now…whether it’s switching my concentration or finding a new internship site, it is pushing my graduation date back by one semester. I try to look at it as an opportunity.”

Under the new INOVA system, students still have that face-to-face option, and five sessions per issue are covered by student service fees—INOVA also extends this coverage to family members and the service can be accessed 24/7. You call, and within 48 hours receive a referral to one of the partnered mental health sites to be seen by a licensed counselor. Dr. Katy Shaffer, Assistant Professor in the Master’s in Applied Psychology/Counseling program illuminated some of the complications of that: “There’s a lot of stigma around seeking help… Having a counselor that you trust or a friend that you trust or a staff member that you trust walk you over and say, ‘Look, I trust these people, and it’s gonna be helpful to you,’ is something you can’t do when you don’t have a Counseling Center.” Across departments, many shared stories of walking a vulnerable student to the Counseling Center for help.

The need for ongoing therapy (5+ sessions) is determined at intake through INOVA. The provider who is best suited to the client (whether the student has insurance or requires sliding scale fees) is then matched with them. “But the problem is a lot of students (people, human beings) don’t want anyone else to know they’re seeking therapy…if you’re on your parent’s insurance, they’ll send your parents a bill that says, ‘X for Licensed Psychology Provider.’ [Insurance companies aren’t] bound in the same ways that you think of like a doctor or a psychologist. I’m not saying they don’t have their own internal rules, but it doesn’t apply in the same way,” Dr. Shaffer explains.

Dr. Tiffaney Parkman, director of the Health and Human Services Program here at UB, gives her perspective: “I was a graduate student at Virginia Tech when the shooting happened…The counseling center staff [at Virginia Tech] were there to deploy. They were able to lead the charge and inform the people who were helping… I have not been at a school or an academic institution where they’ve outsourced counseling services.” In UB’s case, the first responders to such an event would be the campus police (although Provost Smith has said that a licensed clinician through INOVA could be on campus within an hour). Ms. Schoepf echoed the professor’s unease: “It requires a very specific kind of training to assess someone for their level of suicidality or homicidality and the average person is not very good at doing that. I was not good at doing that before I started this program at UB… police are trained in very different way to assess different things and sometimes come to a different solution or different decision regarding the problem. So in calling the police, I can see a lot of, a lot of potential problems in situations being misinterpreted.”

How did we get here? The decision-making process at UB involves senior management (the President; the Vice President; the Provost; and the CFO) and frequently the academic division Deans. In mid-November, a Shared Services Committee comprised of administrators and faculty was convened in order to brainstorm ideas for realignment—one of those sub-groups (or work groups) was tasked with problem-solving the Counseling Center. Shelia Burkhalter, Vice President for Student Affairs at UB, was part of that group. She describes the Center as something, “We were told to look at…from all angles. How do we serve a broader cross-section of students? How do manage risk? How do we maximize our resources?” Several options were drawn up (at least two of which did not involve moving counseling services off-campus) and a summary report was submitted which Ms. Burkhalter described as “a working document.” In between then and now, how—exactly—INOVA got chosen to be implemented as a stand-alone service remains unclear.

At the SGA meeting on February 14th, Provost Smith shed some light on the circumstances of Dr. Turner and Dr. Waters leaving: “It’s an interesting dilemma, when you are looking at options to realign an organization to improve efficiency and effectiveness. You want to bring people into the conversation, and then you fear that because by bringing them into the conversation they will react out of fear and uncertainty. We’ve accepted, obviously, their resignation, and had to make decision on what was next.” Dr. Parkman says, “They knew our students and our population—they understood what was happening. They understood where our students were coming from and the types of issues they faced. And so they were an integral part of the community.”

Ms. Schoepf recalls: “I got a call from Dr. Waters a week before [I was set to start back] and she told me there were some changes occurring within the University that were potentially going to affect the Center. So she wanted the three of us—me, herself, and Dr. Turner—to all meet and talk…[They] had gone to a meeting that (I have not been at, so I can’t really speak for exactly what went on)…but they both had the impression that the Counseling Center would be closing or vastly reconfiguring its services so that their jobs would cease to exist in the near future…Since there weren’t any dates given by the higher administration…I said that I absolutely understood their situation and it made sense for them all to start pursuing employment options elsewhere.” What—exactly—was said in that meeting remains unknown.

She also brings forth what a lot of students are feeling. “[Many have] voiced concerns about feeling unheard by the administration and I think it’s things like this really speak to that.” Dr. Parkman agrees: “I don’t think that there has been a lot of transparency.”

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