The University Counseling Center has seen a majority of its full-time counseling staff leave in the last two years, a turnover rate the former employees blame on mismanagement.
Since fall 2009, 11 counselors have filtered in and out of nine clinical positions at the center, Senior Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine said this week. Four of those employees left in the last four months.
Former employees claim the center has been mismanaged under director John Dages, who took the helm in 2009, and associate director Barbara Brown, who was hired in 2004. One counselor said the “dysfunctional” work environment was caused by “indecisive leadership” and "hands-off management.”
A clinician – who left this spring after two years at the center and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still works in the counseling field – described Dages as “unprofessional,” citing his demands regarding workload, threats to fire staff, comments about personal lives and rare presence at the center.
“If I didn’t pick up the phone on the first ring, [Dages] told me it was unreasonable,” another psychologist recalled.
Another former employee said Brown “screamed at colleagues” who did not meet her professional expectations.
The counselor stressed students are at a disadvantage when clinicians quit after seeing patients for just a few months.
“The overturn creates a chaotic environment,” the counselor said. “The biggest issue is that people don’t want to stay here, and that’s a real shame.”
The former employee also questioned the lack of face-to-face time Dages and Brown spent with clients, saying the managers are not attuned to the needs of students.
“John and Barbara don’t interact with students. They don’t know what’s going on in the student community,” the psychologist said. “There’s a lot of potential for students to fall through the crack.”
Levine said it is not uncommon for the head of a large counseling center “to focus on the macro-managerial functions,” adding that Dages steps in to see clients in emergency situations.
“We both strive to make UCC a healthy and productive work environment, as well as a fair workplace for staff,” Dages said. “While I cannot be sure why former employees brought up these negative comments, many shared with me that their time at UCC provided extremely beneficial clinical experience.”
Multiple counselors said GW’s reputation as an “unhealthy work environment” has spread across the country. One former counselor said she was warned by counselors locally, as well as from Arizona and Ohio, not to apply to GW’s counseling center.
Dean of Students Peter Konwerski said Student and Academic Support Services is working with the counseling center management to hold “professional development sessions,” which he said enabled the staff to communicate concerns about “policy, procedure and operational improvements" under the new model.
The counseling center rolled out a new fee structure Sept. 6 as the result of a year-long lobbying effort by student leaders demanding greater accessibility to mental health services.
The revised policy allows students to receive up to six therapy sessions at no cost, and the center saw a 25-percent surge in the number of first-time clients compared to last year.
The staff is now left with four full-time psychologists and seven part-time staff members – an increase from the three to five part-time staffers that were on hand last year. Levine said employees left for various reasons, with most heading to privately owned firms that pay more and offer more flexible hours.
One of the clinicians, who resigned in the spring and now works at a private office, said the transition to private practice meant a lower paycheck, but the experience at GW “soured me from working in university counseling centers.”
The most recent resignation was submitted to the center in late October – the same time when counseling center administrators met individually with staff members to address their professional grievances.
Levine said these meetings, including exit interviews with staff over the last year, have given him “helpful feedback on ways to make UCC, and the staff experience, even better.” Human Resources will “assist with various training and development initiatives,” he said.
Konwerski said the center's management has been working with Human Resources to "ensure that the leadership team is more available, visible, accountable and transparent in their communication with the staff."
“I am confident that these concerted efforts should help bring the team to the next level,” Levine said.