Universities are ousting their mental health directors
Like many institutions aiming to better serve student mental health needs, Wright State University in Ohio is redesigning its counseling center. The reimagined center will incorporate more wellness services and partner more closely with the university’s College of Health Education and Human Services, which university leaders hope will lead to shorter wait times for students seeking services, as well as to increased telehealth and after-hours capabilities.
But Robert Rando, Wright State’s longtime director of Counseling and Wellness Services, or CWS, will not be involved in the restructuring. He was told in February that his employment at the university was being terminated, though he was allowed to finish seeing his current patients; he eventually left the institution earlier this month. Rando had worked at Wright State for 24 years; in 2017 he received a lifetime achievement award from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD).
Wright State dean of students Chris Taylor announced Rando’s termination in a one-paragraph email to the Division of Student Affairs staff on Feb. 3.
“I am writing to inform you that Counseling and Wellness Services is undergoing a restructuring that will involve a transition in leadership,” Taylor wrote in the email, which was provided to Inside Higher Ed. The email named two faculty members as interim leaders of CWS, explaining they would hold those positions until the end of the semester.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Provost Amy Thompson said that she could not explain why Rando was not being kept on as CWS’s director because it was a personnel issue. She did say, however, that the university is planning a search for the new director.
“That position will actually have a dotted line to our dean of our College of Health Education and Human Services,” she said. “So, that really solidifies that counseling center–academic partnership.”
With student mental health remaining a top concern for U.S. colleges and universities, institutions are looking for innovative ways to provide students with the care they need. Some have removed caps on how many counseling sessions students can attend; others have enlisted faculty to aid in the battle.
Still others—including Wright State, as well as Texas A&M University and the University of Kentucky—are completely restructuring their counseling centers in an attempt to find a model that will allow students to access more timely, frequent and effective mental health care on campus.
According to Marcus Hotaling, president of the AUCCCD, at least 10 universities have removed their counseling center directors in the past year.
“[These institutions] have basically said, ‘We’re going to move in a different direction,’ and they’ve basically put counseling under health services or [another] realignment and then gotten rid of the counseling center director,” he said.
In some cases, the counseling center director position has been eliminated entirely; in others, the role has been revised to better fit a new vision of campus health services that often encompasses or outsources psychological services. These changes may also end up saving some institutions money, sources say.
The University of Kentucky established a new executive director role to oversee its expanded mental health offerings on campus, which essentially replaced the existing role of counseling center director. (Mary Chandler Bolin, another AUCCCD lifetime achievement award winner, retired from that position in August; the search for the new executive director, listed on job boards such as Higher Ed Jobs, appears to be ongoing.)
Kentucky’s new mental health offerings center on a “hub” called TRACS, or Triage, Referral, Assistance and Crisis Support, which refers students to the required support services and aims to hire and retain clinicians who match the backgrounds and identities of Kentucky’s students, according to an emailed statement from Corrine Williams, Kentucky’s associate vice president for student well-being.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M combined mental health and health services under one roof. In the restructuring, the university created a new leadership role called the senior director of counseling and mental health that replaced the existing counseling center director, for which the institution is currently seeking applicants.
“In order to operate, that position was expanded and created into a senior director role. So the position as it existed was revised and requires a different level of competencies and skills, so the director role was no longer needed,” said Nancy Fahrenwald, associate vice president for University Health Services, as the combined health and mental health services are called. “That’s the insight: organizational change and not personnel, not performance, not anything like that. It was organizational change.”
Loss of Institutional Knowledge
According to several sources Inside Higher Ed spoke to on background, the trend shows that administrators are placing less value than they should on the insights and experiences of counseling center staff and leaders in the fight to meet the overwhelming demand for student mental health care.
This is especially evident in the lack of input that counseling center leaders have had in the various restructuring efforts at their respective institutions. An individual with knowledge of CWS operations at Wright State said that no senior counseling center leaders were involved in the plan to align the center more closely with the College of Health Education and Human Services, for example.
The source also pointed out that the university chose to eliminate Rando’s position in the middle of February, one of the busiest periods for the counseling center.
“When decisions are going to be made around mental health care on college campuses, the mental health leaders of the campus should be involved in those decisions,” said Hotaling. “It shouldn’t be done strictly from a need-based model. It shouldn’t be done because of a potentially financial model.”
Hotaling warned that letting counseling center directors go could have a range of repercussions, including draining staff morale and depriving the center of long-standing institutional and clinical knowledge.
“That’s a big concern for me, when you lose someone who’s been there a number of years,” he said. “They’re taking 20-plus years of experience, 20-plus years of institutional knowledge and 20-plus years of mental health knowledge that is unique to their specific institution.”