‘Chaos’ at Campus Health: Employees cite burnout, abuse, dangerous levels of turnover

Rohan Goswami and Martha Sanchez

A crisis has unfolded over the last nine months at Campus Health, leaving students waiting for care. (Matthew Tate)

Content Warning: The following article contains subject matter pertaining to suicide and self harm.

Ryan Judd said that when he started working as a staff therapist at the Tulane University Counseling Center, it was the best job he could have asked for. Stephanie Choy, another former staff therapist, said when she started “it always felt like we were listened to … like the focus was on meeting students’ needs.”

Since spring 2021, more than a dozen staffers have resigned from Campus Health. According to Counseling Center employees, tensions boiled over after a meeting in January 2021, during which Scott Tims, assistant vice president for campus health, accused staff of turning away students in crisis among other complaints. Employees describe being blindsided by the accusations in front of senior leadership at Tulane.

“I was devastated,” Judd said about leaving the Counseling Center. Choy echoed that sentiment. “I did not want to leave,” she said.

The situation within the Center only grew worse, employees said, when Lilian Odera assumed directorship in March 2021. According to employees, turnover accelerated and caseloads have skyrocketed. Former staffers describe being forced to refer students to outside care at their own cost due to full schedules, without follow-up from Tulane counselors.

Current employees under Odera say they are reluctant to speak publicly due to fear of retaliation. Those who did, said that employees are still fearful, isolated and closely watched. The Tulane Hullabaloo granted anonymity to individuals still employed with Tulane.

One staff member’s resignation from the Counseling Center was effective Nov. 18.

Fully staffed, the Counseling Center has 18 employees. Mike Strecker, assistant vice president for communications, said that there are currently 12 clinicians or individuals giving care to patients. Two are not yet licensed to practice in Louisiana. Current employees said the true number of clinicians is as low as seven.

Tims was promoted to oversee campus health in 2015. He has a Ph.D. in Public Health and supervises Odera, a psychologist who joined as the director for the Counseling Center. She came to Tulane from Salisbury University.

According to Matthew Sobesky, former interim director for the Counseling Center, decisions made by Tims, and later Odera, drive much of what he describes as Campus Health’s “chaos.”

Tims declined to comment on allegations made against him by employees.

Caring for students

Nearly every former Campus Health employee spoken to described a feeling of guilt about abandoning the student body.

Judd’s separation from Tulane was not amicable. He recounted Odera “screaming” at him about an email he sent to the Counseling Center staff questioning the lack of information around a medical student suicide in the summer of 2021.

Previously, Judd said clinicians were told by administrators in the event of a student death. In this instance, he said that clinicians first heard about it from students.

According to Judd, Tims demanded that he leave campus without completing his final sessions with clients. Judd said that he refused to do so, citing his ethical and professional obligations to his patients.

Judd said that Tims threatened to call the Tulane University Police Department to forcibly remove him from campus. Other clinicians confirmed this account.

As a result, Judd was not allowed to complete his termination sessions with students. Termination sessions are a critical part of a therapeutic relationship.

According to Judd, Tims and Odera forbade other counselors from explaining to his clients what happened.

Odera declined to comment on allegations made against her by employees. However, in an interview with The Hullabaloo, she emphasized her commitment to students in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, during the COVID-19 pandemic and throughout America’s racial reckoning.

In a written statement, Strecker said “Dr. Odera has been focused on maximizing existing resources to continue to provide uninterrupted care to students while working to fill existing vacancies.”

According to Strecker, the Counseling Center experienced a higher level of turnover during the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend he said was reflected in university counseling centers across the country.

Matthew Tate

Choy said that she was not able to fulfill her ethical duty to her patients because her schedule was too full to meet with students at the frequency they needed.

Alleged toxicity, intimidation, shaming

Current and former employees describe the meeting on Jan. 27 as a turning point for them. They said that this meeting was symptomatic of “abusive” behavior by Tims. At the time, Sobesky was serving as interim director for the Counseling Center.

According to several former employees, Tims accused the Counseling Center staff of negligence in front  of university leadership, including Dusty Porter, vice president for student affairs, and Erica Woodley, assistant vice president for student affairs. Staff were not permitted to defend themselves against these accusations during the meeting.

“He was alleging that we just didn’t know what we were doing,” Sobesky said.

As captured by a recording of the meeting, Tims claimed, “I have received frequent reports of students being unable to be seen same day … To be clear, students crying in the lobby were not allowed to see a licensed provider crying, upset, in crisis.”

Strecker echoed that assessment and said “Last year, student complaints led to a review of Counseling Center practices after the departure of Dr. Bender. Specifically, we received multiple complaints of students being turned away when in crisis and not being able to access therapy.”

Multiple current and former Campus Health clinicians dispute Tims’ allegation that students in crisis were turned away. “In a crisis, of course nobody was going to ever be turned away,” former Staff Therapist Ginette Arguello said.

Sobesky said that he was unaware of the review referenced by Strecker. “To my knowledge there [was] never any formal review of the counseling center and if this did occur, never was I informed of any significant concerns or infractions during the limited supervision and support meetings with [Dr. Tims]. The omission of these concerns actually led [me] to believe that we were ‘keeping the ship afloat’ during my tenure as interim director as I was asked to do by [Dr. Tims].”

“There are continued identifications of perfidious behavior … I feel lied to and misled about many things,” Tims said.

The employees interviewed uniformly deny that they lied to leadership. Belinda Avila, a former patient representative, said that the Counseling Center had been understaffed even before the pandemic.

“They harm themselves. It’s all of our responsibility because we didn’t do what our job is to do,” Tims said in the recording after previously referencing an increase in suicide attempts and self harm within the student body.

I do not believe there is a circumstance in which you say to a staff member that they are at fault for a student death. As mental health professionals, we carry this burden daily. We take it home with us.”

— Matthew Sobesky

Many on the staff at the time said the meeting was traumatic. A current employee said that it felt like “an assault.” In a report to Human Resources, Sobesky described the meeting as a humiliation. Belinda Avila, a former patient representatives, said she had “mild PTSD” for months after.

“The message,” Choy said, “was that I wasn’t doing enough. That I didn’t care about students.”

“It was such an abusive experience,” Arguello said. She resigned two months after that meeting.

Over the past several months conversations have occurred to address these issues and ensure that no student walking into the counseling center would be turned away without care.”

— Mike Strecker

In an email sent March 5, Porter told Counseling Center staff that the purpose of the meeting “was not to make employees feel bad.”

“Rather,” Porter wrote, “it was to ensure that our students get the support they need and have the strongest educational experience possible.”

Staff said it had the opposite impact. According to Sobesky, Tims provided “no evidence” to support his claims. In the meeting, Tims referenced “frequent reports” and “concerns,” but did not elaborate in detail on all of his claims.

Porter did not directly respond to a request for comment. Speaking on his behalf, Strecker said, “Dr. Porter is confident that the Counseling Center is being managed in a professional and productive manner by Dr. Odera and Dr. Tims.”

Arguello said that Tims never provided staff with specific information about wrongdoing. Instead, he told Counseling Center employees that a member of the Campus Health Senior Leadership Team would occupy an office in the Counseling Center to ensure that they complied with his directives.

At best, this created an uncomfortable situation for Counseling Center staff and several on his own leadership team. At worst, one of his staff members, Shannon Gabriel, RN, took active steps to disrupt clinic operations and bully the Counseling Center staff.”

— Complaint to Tulane University Human Resources

Multiple clinicians said that the meeting left them uncertain about what they were doing wrong, causing them mental strain. “This place is no longer — is no longer good for me. I’m not sleeping. I dread coming into work every single day,” Avila said.

A current employee put it more bluntly. “When people come in here, we have to be really centered … If we’re dysregulated, we literally cannot do our jobs.”

‘Students at great risk’

Shortly after the meeting, “many concerned members of the Tulane Counseling Center staff” sent President Mike Fitts and Robin Forman, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, an email pleading for Fitts to intervene.

“We are afraid of potential retaliation by Dr. Tims and other leaders,” they wrote. “Dr. Tims has created … an unsafe feeling of institutionally sanctioned harassment.”

The presence of senior leadership, as well as HR, “can only suggest tacit approval of such treatment,” the email continued.

According to Sobesky, Fitts, Forman and two officials from the Office of Institutional Equity did not respond to the anonymous email.

In the aftermath of the meeting, Sobesky and other staffers described being watched by leadership at Campus Health.

According to staffers, Tims’ leadership team would monitor their calendars. “[We were] told when we could, [and] just how long we could go to, for a bathroom break,” Arguello said.

In one instance, a clinician said they received a video call from Shannon Gabriel, director of nursing, demanding an explanation as to what the clinician was doing. The clinician said they were in the middle of following up on their outpatient referrals.

Arguello said it became “impossible to be present in a session.”

“People would feel nervous about going to a doctor’s appointment,” Choy said.

Contrary to Tims’ accusations, Avila said that a clinician would “never” turn away a patient if they had space in their schedule. A current clinician said their caseload is over 40 students. Another clinician said they were responsible for 38 students.

Everybody’s afraid.”

— Current Counseling Center employee

“I would rather not have a retirement plan than continue to work in this environment,” a current staff member said. “[I’ve] never seen such bad management.” Another current employee said she is struck with anxiety as soon as she enters the building.

Ongoing crisis

Today, the Counseling Center does not have a psychiatrist. According to Avila, Tims went after their salaries, and the Counseling Center went from having access to “four, five psychiatrists” to having just one by fall 2021. That psychiatrist has since resigned.

An undergraduate student said that their former clinician at Tulane was “dumped” with a massive caseload, and pressured by Campus Health leadership to shorten their consultations to 30 minutes. According to the same student, that individual, a doctor, resigned as a result of the directive.

A current Campus Health employee said that only a few staff members are able to diagnose and write prescriptions for students. “They’re technically qualified to do so, but they don’t have any experience dealing with psychiatric evaluations,” the employee said.

According to that same employee, one doctor, Dr. Marius Commodore, can write psychiatric prescriptions at Campus Health. They added that Commodore and a nurse practitioner are the only individuals able to provide psychiatric care.

For the students, said a current employee, “there’s no continuity of care.”

“There were students on my caseload that I had to transfer to someone else who had already been transferred … one, two times already,” Choy said.

Sobesky described Tims as a “highly skilled presenter.” He went on to say that Tims had a great ability to articulate the vision and mission statement of an organization but lacked the capacity to realize that vision with action.

Dysfunction, poor understanding

Former employees described Donna Bender, the previous director of the Counseling Center, as supportive and protective. Bender declined to comment.

“Donna Bender was the best mentor,” Arguello said.

According to Campus Health employees, Bender sheltered staff from Tims and Sobesky attempted to do the same.

“[Bender] protected us from all that dysfunction, and she created an environment and a space where we could do our jobs effectively,” a former therapist said.

Staff said they were initially hopeful about Odera’s leadership.

“We felt hopeful [she’d] come and be a buffer between us and all the other campus health dysfunction,” said that same therapist.

“Dr. Odera arrived and it really didn’t get better … it actually got worse,” Choy said. “So many more people started leaving and then a lot of issues snowballed out of that.”

“She  was totally unopened to any kind of feedback,” Judd said. “I was in charge of the eating disorder [response] … I made a case, look here’s some numbers. We need to seriously up the resources … let’s get clinical consultations; let’s get trainings. They just laughed, like, ‘What do you know?’”

Some members of the Campus Health staff said the changes that did get implemented sometimes had unintended consequences. “On its face, they are intended to put students first, but in practice don’t accomplish those things, and there’ve been a few examples that actually make it harder,” Choy said.

Vicious cycle of turnover

Current employees said they believe that turnover will only grow worse, leaving fewer employees to handle increasing numbers of students.

You get so burnt out that …  you just want to keep your job. The worker that comes in becomes isolated, and then everybody doesn’t help anybody else. They’re just looking out for just themselves. And that happens every time … They become anxious, and it becomes horrible. It went from this collaboration [within] Campus Health and the Counseling Center, to a complete breakdown of isolation within employees, because everybody is afraid to step on anyone’s toes and be reprimanded.”

— Belinda Avila

After a well-publicized spate of student deaths in 2014-2015, Tulane committed to improving access to mental healthcare. An open-submission letter to Fitts grew to 50 pages, with many criticizing the underfunding of counseling.

According to Strecker, funding for the Counseling Center has “increased substantially” in the past seven years and has resulted in more counselors and available services. “When fully staffed, the center will have 18 full-time employees, representing a higher ratio of staff to student than most of our peers,” Strecker said.

Today, Tulane has ten licensed clinicians servicing a student body of 14,472. Since August 2021, TUPD has responded to more than a dozen incidents of students in mental health crises.

If you are a current Campus Health employee and wish to share your experience anonymously, please email us at [email protected].

For Tulane affiliates in need of  immediate medical attention, the Tulane University Police Department can be reached at (504) 865-5911. For non-affiliates, dial 911.

The New Orleans Alliance on Mental Illness Crisis Line can be reached 24/7 by texting “NAMI” to 741741.

Students in need of additional support can contact the Residential Advisor on call in their residence hall. Students may also call the on-call Case Manager at 504-920-9900.

For LGBTQ+ students, the Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to those under 25 and can be reached at 866-488-7386.

The Employee Assistance Program is available for faculty and staff seeking counseling or support. Information about Employee Assistance Programs can be found at https://hr.tulane.edu/benefits/employee-assistance-program.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.