How much empathy does one need to be an effective talk therapist? Can university professors aptly determine whether graduate students have enough of it to join the counseling profession?
These questions lie at the heart of a lawsuit that's been filed against Webster University by a miffed student, who was dismissed from the school's Master's-level counseling program in March. The week before David Schwartz received his termination letter, he claims his adviser told him he lacked the necessary empathy the profession demands.
Schwartz, a 44-year-old University City resident, doesn't quibble over whether he's capable of handling the emotional pain of potential clients. Rather, he's accusing the university of breaking its code by dropping him without offering to help fix his deficiency. That Schwartz achieved a 3.78 GPA through the five semesters prior to his removal suggests he deserved better, he contends.
"I worked hard at my studies, and they didn't give me due process, so I'm seeking justice," says Schwartz, who claims to have amassed $70,000 in student loans while enrolled at Webster. He's suing for $8 million in punitive damages, alleging fraudulent misrepresentation and breach of contract, among other counts. To top it off, he suggests he's the victim of spiteful collusion between a pair of amorous profs.
Schwartz enrolled in the Webster program in June 2009 after an unfulfilling career as a computer help-desk technologist. He'd already earned a Master of Social Work degree from Washington University but believed he needed more counseling training. Through the end of last year he'd earned fourteen "A"s and one "C."
The 2011 spring semester required him to undergo a clinical practicum that included three mock counseling sessions conducted under the lens of a video camera. Following those three sessions, Schwartz's adviser, Stacy Henning, called for a February 24 meeting and told Schwartz he needed work on his clinical skills. She also noted that he might have to repeat the practicum once or twice in order to graduate and offered to help him develop his clinical skills, Schwartz claims.
One week later, on March 3, Henning sat down with Schwartz again to inform him that he lacked the empathy that was necessary to be an effective counselor, Schwartz says. She said she was forced to fail him, automatically making him ineligible for completion of his degree program given that one "C" grade on his transcript.
As Schwartz recalls, "She turned off the videotape [of the mock-therapy session] and said, 'David, you would fail as a counselor. It is my duty to you, and to the profession, not to let that happen. It's a wonder how you made it through the program this far.' " But Schwartz says that neither Henning nor any of his professors had given him any hint he was struggling. In fact, he says, Webster's student handbook says students have the right to receive ongoing evaluation, opportunities for remedial coursework and, for students who don't demonstrate appropriate counseling skills development, the opportunity to meet with a special advisory committee. None of that was offered, says Schwartz. "They broke their promises," says Schwartz. "How I am I supposed to improve if they haven't worked with me?"
In a letter to Schwartz's lawyers, Webster defended its actions. In that missive, university officials rebutted Schwartz's assertions, claiming the student was offered one-on-one counseling sessions through the first two months of the year. In addition, the officials claimed that Schwartz was given fair warning that he was in jeopardy of flunking out of the program if he failed the practicum.
Socially, Schwartz might come across as a bit awkward. He fidgets a lot. He seems to have a speech impediment that makes him difficult to understand. Perhaps he'll never have the polish associated with counselors, and that might have been a reason Henning threw up a red flag.
Regardless, Schwartz's lawyers contend that empathy is too subjective a quality to use as a means for dismissal. And, for their part, experts counter that empathy is a micro-skill that can be observed and honed. They also say that the counseling discipline is a soft science that gives professors leeway to judge their students on several subjective measures, including empathy.
"I don't know if [a student's termination] can be based on one simple thing like a lack of empathy, but professors do have to look at the developmental level of each student to determine their ability to successfully form interpersonal skills," says Carol Bobby, president of the Counseling and Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.
Bobby says students can be dropped from counseling programs for lacking those skills, but in such cases, they're usually given the chance to go through remediation programs. If they still fail, says Bobby, "faculty members should help facilitate the student's transition out of the program to a more appropriate field of study."
Webster officials declined to comment on this article, and Henning didn't return phone calls.
Schwartz also suggests that spite may have played a role in his heave-ho. Midway through his practicum, he made the determination that his instructor -- whom he claims is romantically involved with Henning -- was not doing an adequate job as a teacher. He reacted by writing an anonymous complaint letter to Webster's president and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. It didn't take long for all parties to figure out he was the author, Schwartz reasons.
He still defends the letter. "I couldn't go to [Henning] with my complaints because I feared the very retribution I seemed to have received," he reasons. "I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt that she removed me for academic reasons, but I do have to wonder."
Schwartz isn't sure what will come of his future. He doesn't see himself applying to other counseling programs or fulfilling the rest of his coursework online. And he certainly has no intentions of reapplying to Webster.
"When I read that I could reapply, I was incredulous," he says. "Do they think that magical empathy dust could be sprinkled on my head?"