By Nicolas Hernandez | @_NicolasHdz
Discussions as to hiring more Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) employees ensued during the first Associated Students Inc. (ASI) Board of Directors meeting of the fall semester. In executive leaders’ first official preview of the upcoming 2020-2021 ASI Action Plan to the board on Aug. 27, members and liaisons weighed in on the organization’s advocacy efforts — including a possible student health fee increase to hire more counselors.
“Hire more counselors” has been a consistent refrain, echoed by students at multiple university events, including ASI’s recent racial justice town hall. It has been seen as a common-sense solution to long wait times for CAPS appointments.
CAPS Director Nancy R. Robles stated that prior to the university’s shift to virtual instruction, appointments were distributed to students on Monday mornings, leading to typical wait times of one to two weeks for students, depending on when their initial contact with CAPS took place. As mid-term and final exams saw an increase in students seeking CAPS appointments, Robles stated that the wait time increased to three weeks for some students.
The student demand to hire more counselors was received positively by Cal Poly Pomona President Soraya M. Coley during February’s Pizza with the Presidents event, who affirmed that the university was hiring three more counselors to better balance the student to counselor ratio.
Just a month later, however, in response to the flaring COVID-19 pandemic, Cal State University (CSU) Chancellor Timothy P. White announced a hiring slowdown effectively ending the hiring of positions that are not “mission critical.” The “Hiring Chill” is set to remain in effect until further
Two of the three counselor positions pointed to by Coley have been filled, as interviews for the positions occurred prior to the chancellor’s memo.
The two counselors recently began working for CAPS and, in a first for the department, have been embedded into the university’s Student Support & Equity Programs and in University Housing Services, according to Robles.
The recruitment of the third counselor has been delayed for the time being, according to Associate Vice President for Student Health & Wellbeing Leticia Gutierrez-Lopez.
Still, the first draft of ASI’s action plan harkens back to the familiar student demand by prioritizing a partnership with CAPS to “increase the ratio and presence of counselors across campus…”
While reading through the hiring proposal during the board meeting, ASI Vice President Manshaan Singh said, “We know that we need more counselors, right; that’s something that we hear every day.”
In discussion of the action plan, Vice President of Student Affairs and ASI’s University Advisor, Christina Gonzalez, deviated slightly from hiring as the sole solution.
“I just want to put out there too that it’s not just hiring more people, because we can’t hire our way out of it,” Gonzalez said. “But it’s also being able to add more workshops, to actually utilize some platforms that can assist students when they maybe don’t need a counselor, but they need some other skills.”
The other solutions, championed by both Gonzalez and Gutierrez-Lopez, included well-being coaching, a CAPS program that assists students by focusing on life skills rather than counseling. Well-being coaching is part of the university’s Integrated Care Network that connects students with a variety of health and basic needs services.
Agriculture Senator Delilah Orta raised the possibility of raising students’ fees with the goal of hiring more counselors. Orta later stated that in conversations she had during last semester’s election campaign, prior to the shift to virtual instruction, she found students to be supportive of this proposal.
“(Students) voted for me for a reason and they understood what I stood for when I was campaigning,” Orta said.
Singh explained that Orta’s proposal, if adopted, would take the form of increasing the mandatory student health fee with the express goal of hiring more counselors. For this fall semester, students were charged $134.34 for this fee.
However, CAPS operations are squarely within the university’s control, not ASI’s. The student advocacy organization specifically designates “domains” within its action plan for actions that ASI can take to lobby and advocate for certain policies such as counselor hiring.
Singh explained that the most likely route for a fee increase to come to fruition would be through a student referendum as part of ASI’s spring elections. Coley would first need to approve this fee increase as part of the students’ ballot. If the student body were to approve the measure it would then require approval from the university’s student-leader-majority Fee Advisory Committee, from Coley once more and, finally, from the CSU chancellor.
“My personal philosophy is to try to do whatever we can before going the route of increasing student fees,” Singh said. “But, as Vice President Gonzalez said, that would be one of the ways we could do that, if we wanted to get more counselors.”
While CAPS appointments, now conducted virtually, have seen a decrease in wait times due to appointment distributions occurring throughout the week, Robles foresaw this as a temporary circumstance. The two business day waits, enjoyed throughout summer and early spring, are expected to increase as the semester continues. Therefore, Robles expressed approval of the possibility of more funding to hire CAPS personnel via a health fee increase. Additionally, Gutierrez-Lopez emphasized not solely seeking counselor hires but also well-being coaches.
“I mean if there is an opportunity (for more hiring), I wouldn’t necessarily specifically target counselors only,” Gutierrez-Lopez said. “I would want it to be open to other positions that are supporting students’ wellbeing overall.”
According to Robles, CAPS’ counseling budget is entirely student fee-funded — meaning CAPS’ recruitment could indeed be buoyed by a fee increase and its financial standing would be less impacted by COVID-19 related state budget cuts, though drops in enrollment could result in financial woes for the department.
Gutierrez-Lopez also clarified that CAPS positions are classified as “mission critical” meaning if either through a student referendum or the university’s own volition, more counselors or wellbeing coaches are hired, those positions would not be hindered by the chancellor’s hiring slowdown mandate.
Orta, who expressed determination in reaching the goal of more CAPS hiring, did not confirm whether she would be open to proposing an amendment to this academic year’s ASI action plan to advocate specifically for a fee increase referendum, saying that she would need to discuss the issue further with other student leaders.
Orta said. “(In determining) how we get there, I am willing to work with both my vice president and president.”
Another CAPS proposal that students voiced during ASI’s racial justice event was an increase in counselors’ diversity, with students especially wanting more counselors of color.
In response, Gonzalez stated, “We just have to be careful because in hiring we can’t discriminate, so we have to be really careful. So usually we would word things a little bit more in terms of having experience with certain communities or populations, just because we have to be careful with federal laws around hiring and discriminating and all of that.”
In the draft presented at the meeting, the policy addressing this student desire reads, “…adding cultural competency amongst (CAPS) staff…”
When asked after the meeting if she believed this wording to be acceptable considering anti-discrimination laws, Gonzalez responded affirmatively and spoke highly of existing cultural competency within CAPS personnel.
“I think a lot of students don’t realize that our current counselors…probably have some of the strongest background around cultural competency and are often utilized in that way,” Gonzalez said, also adding that in hiring, the university can also highlight experience working in the Black community, for example, as an important qualification for candidates.
Gutierrez-Lopez also added that the interview process for counselors consists of several “vignettes and scenarios” gauging prospective hires’ approach to assisting a diverse community.
As the board transitions to meetings every other week, board members now have until Sep. 10 to consider any changes to ASI’s guiding policy document for the academic year.
The version of the action plan presented to board members can be found attached to the Aug. 27 meeting agenda, though as the sprawling “DRAFT” watermark on the document indicates, the ASI 2020-2021 Action Plan may very well change as policy discussions develop.
The agenda, minutes and Zoom link for previous and upcoming board of directors meetings can be found on ASI’s website.
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