07/13/2020

Students at risk as college fires all its counselors

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Students at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., are struggling with changes due to the coronavirus pandemic: wondering whether they should sign up for classes next semester, what “class” will look like, whether they have the online equipment they’ll need for remote learning. And now, on top of all that, they are losing the counselors who could help lead them through the confusion.

Broward College

On April 15, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Broward College announced it is laying off all 14 of its counselors, many of whom have been serving students at the college for more than 20 years. United Faculty of Florida has filed a formal grievance and the local chapter at Broward College is considering filing an unfair labor practice. Nearly 3,800 people have signed a petition to reinstate the counselors, and community support is building.

“I am still at a loss [as to] how a great institution like Broward College would abruptly disengage the professionals most equipped to help students at this critical time when they are seeking comfort, direction and answers,” says Teresa M. Hodge, president of the Broward College chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, the full-time faculty union. “To add insult to injury, 11 of our 14 faculty counselors are faculty of color. Our academic institutions need more inclusivity during this moment in history, not less.”

The college plans to replace the counselors with less-experienced, nonunion workers, though it has invited existing counselors to reapply for these lower-paying adviser jobs.

Students are devastated, and counselors worry as much about their students’ welfare as they do their own. “Counselors have always been a stabilizing force at Broward College,” says Oluyinka Tella, one of the counselors who was laid off. While students connect with faculty members for one semester at a time, counselors stay with them through years of attendance, with students sharing personal challenges and asking for guidance on life issues that affect their success at school. “It’s heartbreaking to look at these kids and say, ‘I really can’t help you anymore. You’re going to have to reach out to that new person,’” says Damon Davis, another laid-off counselor.

Many of the students cry when they find out their counselors are no longer available to them—including one who spoke through tears at a virtual press conference on June 25. “We need our faculty counselors,” she said, noting particularly the work of Denise Rodriguez, a counselor who has also established a mentoring program for women in science, technology, engineering and math. “More than ever we need a program like Women in STEM,” the student said.

Rodriguez says she is trying to field questions from students but has few answers for them. When the layoffs were announced, she says, “My phone was ringing, my WhatsApp group was anxious to see what the next step would be. Students continue to call me trying to find out what’s going on. What will I be doing now? I don’t know.”

College officials are arguing that firing the counselors will save the college more than $1 million and should be considered a “reduction in force,” which they say is allowable because they are grouping counselors and academic advisers together. They say these two categories of workers do the same job, but union members have corrected them: Counselors provide emotional support and guidance and have advanced degrees and training; academic advisers have less experience and their primary responsibility is to guide students through the process of figuring out which courses they should select to get their degrees.

The coronavirus pandemic has threatened college finances because of under-enrollment and costs associated with accommodating remote learning and other adjustments—so the college has leaned in on the cost-savings argument. But the state is providing $27 million in stimulus funds to offset pandemic costs.

“Every day that goes by, students aren’t getting the services they need,” says UFF Executive Director Marshall Ogletree. “The value that these professionals give to their community is blatantly overlooked just because of a few dollars here and there. The labor-relations aspect will be important, but we want the community to understand what happened. This has impacted thousands of students.”

[Virginia Myers/Photo by leamericanos]